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Exhibit: Invisible Bodies, Disposable Cloth: Rhode Island and Slavery, 1783-1850s

  • University of Rhode Island Main Gallery 105 Upper College Road Kingston, RI USA (map)


January 23-February 18, 2017- This exhibition explores Rhode Island’s textile industry and its connections to slavery, the slave trade and other related institutions from 1783 to the 1850s.

In 1703, Rhode Island recognized and legalized enslavement. Just over one hundred years later, the United States Congress passed a federal law banning the international slave trade, which curiously heralded a boom in the domestic slave trade. Slavery was not outlawed in Rhode Island until 34 years later.

With particular emphasis on Rhode Island’s economy from 1783 to the 1850s, this exhibition will use text, images, artifacts, and multimedia installation to explore the interdependence of our country’s economy and its intrinsic links with the institution of slavery, and the international and domestic slave trades.


Related Events For February

Saturday, February 11, 2017
Context and Connection: Rhode Island and Slavery, 1783-1850s

Multicultural Center, Hardge Forum
11:00-11:45 – Performance by Elon Cook
From Harriet Jacobs‘ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl“

Little attention was paid to the slaves’ meals in Dr. Flint’s house. If they could catch a bit of food while it was going, well and good. I gave myself no trouble on that score, for on my various errands I passed my grandmother’s house, where there was always something to spare for me. I was frequently threatened with punishment if I stopped there; and my grandmother, to avoid detaining me, often stood at the gate with something for my breakfast or dinner. I was indebted to her for all my comforts, spiritual or temporal. It was her labor that supplied my scanty wardrobe. **I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery.”**

Elon Cook is a museum activist and race woman. She is the program manager for the Center for Reconciliation, where she leads educational initiatives on the United States’ history of slavery, slave trading and enslaved resistance. Elon is the curator and team lead for The Center for Reconciliation’s museum project on the history of slavery in Rhode Island. She is also the humanities consultant for the Robbins House, an African American historic site in Concord, Massachusetts.

12:00-12:45 – Presentation by Dr. Joanne Pope Melish
“Forgetting and Remembering Slavery in Rhode Island"

This talk will explore how two sets of “invisible bodies” made possible the rise of Rhode Island as an antebellum industrial power. In the colonial period, the trade in African captives and the exploitation of African and Afro-Indian agricultural labor generated the capital to finance the Rhode Island textile industry; later, the labor of enslaved African Americans in the South produced the raw material for textile production, while plantation slavery provided a southern market for “negro cloth” and agricultural tools.

Joanne Pope Melish is Associate Professor of History Emerita at the University of Kentucky, where she also directed the American Studies Program and co-directed the Africana Studies Initiative for several years. Dr. Melish received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University. She is the author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860 (Cornell University Press, 1998) and many essays on race and slavery in the early republic.

12:45-1:15 – Lunch Break

1:15-2:00 – Performance by Sylvia Ann Soares

An actor/writer/historian/activist living in RI Sylvia Ann Soares performs as ‘Silvy Tory’, the elder RI slave in South County. Leading up to the naming of a RI slave cloth mill, ‘Silvy’ recalls slave attire in regards to the RI Negro Election Days (1740’s -1840’s) and to the colonial Revolutionary War. She also references Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech “What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?”

Sylvia Ann Soares, Brown ’95, belongs to the professional acting UnIon SAG-AFTRA and Actors Equity. She is actor/writer/historian/activist. She performed in the NY 60’s Black Theatre Movement, also appearing in 70’s television, film, stage and on tours. Has appeared locally for years with Rites and Reason Theatre. Has created Silvy Tory Stories, her storytelling on history of slavery in RI. Funded by the RI Council for the Humanities (RICH) to be Living History of Nancy Elizabeth Prophet. RICH has funded her researched illustrated talks on local Cape Verdean history.

2:15-3:00 – Presentation by exhibition contributing scholar, Peter Fay
“From Manumission to Moby Dick: Black Labor in Rhode Island from Slavery to Textiles and Whaling”

At each turning point in history, from the birth of the industrial revolution in Rhode Island to the final defeat of southern slavery in the Civil War, Rhode Island African-American workers played a vital role. A former Pawtucket slave did the heaviest work during construction of the nation’s first cotton-spinning mill. A black Warwick sailor joined a whaling voyage to the South Pacific with Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick. And one North Kingstown textile weaver joined the 24th Massachusetts Colored Regiment to march into Charleston, South Carolina, freeing the city’s slaves. Peter Fay will weave together the threads of all colors of labor history to explore the question, what role does race play in working-class Rhode Island, both yesterday and today?

Peter Fay is a Marxist public historian and former Steelworkers union leader. He spent two decades in Central Massachusetts, active in the labor movement, school desegregation and civil rights. He participates in diversity planning at Brown University and recently helped launch the Newport Middle Passage project, a community organization dedicated to commemorating the lives of those lost in the Newport slave trade, and to honoring those who survived it.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Galanti Lounge, URI Library
11:00am-Noon – Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara meets with Women and Gender Studies
12:15-1:15 –Lunch with Students
1:30-2:30 – Meeting with Rhode Island Middle Passage Port Markers Ceremony Project member

URI Main Art Gallery
4:00-5:00 – Exhibition guide and talk with artist-in-residence, Deborah Baronas, and exhibition contributing scholar, Dr. Marcus Nevius
5:00-5:45 – Gallery Reception

Swan Hall Auditorium
6:00-7:30 – Keynote Address by Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, author of Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island
7:30-8:00 – Book Signing (managed by URI Bookstore, confirmed)

Building formally known as URI Faculty Club
8:00-9:00 – Dinner with Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara


Later Event: January 27
State Meeting of Rhode Island MPCPMP