2018-02-08 / News

Town’s black population has ebbed, flowed


Colonial Jamestown had the largest black population, by percentage, of any community in the state. According to a 1706 census, 15 percent of townspeople were black, although none were land owners.

By 1756, that figure had risen to 36 percent. When the importation of slaves into Rhode Island was formally prohibited in 1774, 20 percent of the 563 residents in town were Africans or descendants.

The censuses do not distinguish between free and enslaved servants, but wills and estate inventories of the era make it clear most were slaves.

Caleb Carr, in 1695, left to his wife “Sarah Carr, my Negro woman Hannah”; “unto my son Edward Carr my Indian boy named Tom”; and “unto my daughter Elizabeth Carr, my Negro boy Joe.” The inventory and evaluation of the estate of Thomas Carr, who died in 1776, contains references to the price of his slaves: “one Negro man name Jem, 45 pounds; two Negro women, Rose and Kdonar, 20 pounds; one Negro boy Pero, 20 pounds.”

There was a growth of antislavery sentiment in the 18th century, especially among the Quakers, which was the dominant faith in Jamestown.

In April 1775, Daniel Weeden Jr. manumitted his 10 slaves, all except one under 18, stating: “I being willing to do to others as I would have others do to me.” His father, Daniel Weeden Sr., freed his four slaves on his death 10 years later.

They were all adults, although their ages are not recorded, and Daniel Sr. conditioned their release: “But if either or all of my Negros shall refuse to take their freedom my mind & will is that he, she or they so refusing shall be taken care of and supported by my executors hereafter named.”

Other owners also freed their slaves, but wide-spread emancipation was a gradual process. In 1784, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed the Negro Emancipation Act, freeing the children of slaves when the men became 21 and the women 18. James Howland had been born into slavery in Jamestown 25 years earlier, and was unaffected by the act. He died in Jamestown on January 3, 1859, at 100 years of age — reputedly Rhode Island’s last slave.

Even before the emancipation act, the black population of Jamestown had declined. The depression that followed the American Revolution changed the community of prosperous exporters of agricultural products to subsistence farmers. In 1783, only 13 slaves remained, and the records of the overseer of the poor over the next decades show ongoing attempts by free blacks to leave the island for larger communities.

The Civil War saw Jamestown once again with a large black community, although the influence was small and short term. From September 1863 to October 1865, the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored), Rhode Island’s black regiment, trained at Camp Bailey on Dutch Island.

The growth of the resort hotels and the summer community brought with it the service personnel necessary to keep the new industry going. While many of these new arrivals were immigrants from the Azores and the British Isles, others were black Americans. Some of the most successful became the center of a tiny black community on the island. Among them were Andrew Lodkey and his wife Melissa, who had been born into slavery in Georgia in the 1850s. When the 63-years-old Lodkey moved to Jamestown in 1913, he opened a restaurant at East Ferry and catered events for 20 years.

In the 1950s and 1960s, black families — like their white neighbors — often came to Jamestown after service in the U.S. Navy. Among them were the Coles and the Southerns.

Hafford Cole served in World War II and, after he retired, became the barber at the Quonset Naval Air Station. He raised his family on Cole Street. William Southern was a World War II and Korean War veteran. His wife, Mattie Ruth, worked as a licensed practical nurse at Newport Hospital.

Both families still live in Jamestown. Valerie Southern was elected to the Jamestown Town Council in 1989. To date, she is the only black councilor in the town’s history.

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