Black Rhode Islanders
People of African heritage have lived in Rhode Island since the 17th century. The first Africans were brought to Rhode Island as part of the transatlantic maritime trade known as the Triangle Trade. Traders made rum in Rhode Island using sugar cane harvested in the Caribbean; the rum was then used to purchase African men, women, and children who were sold into slavery. Between 1700-1800, Rhode Island merchants sponsored approximately 1,000 slaving voyages, bringing over 100,000 Africans to America. While many were sold to plantation owners in the southern colonies, some were enslaved or retained as indentured servants in Rhode Island. By the 1770s Rhode Island had the greatest population of enslaved people per capita in New England.
The history of the African American experience in Rhode Island goes well beyond slavery, however, and the contributions of Black Rhode Islanders continue to have a lasting impact on the state. Rhode Island was the first state to create an explicitly non-white military regiment during the American Revolution. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment was comprised of Black and Indigenous men, serving in several battles including the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778, and the decisive Battle of Yorktown in 1781. During the Civil War, Rhode Island was the first state to issue a call for a voluntary regiment comprised entirely of Black soldiers. It quickly reached capacity as men from around New England joined to support the Union Army. Black communities were also civically engaged, actively petitioning the General Assembly in their pursuit of equal rights in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Explore the State Archives’ virtual exhibition, "Bullets & Bulletins: Black Activism in Civil War Era Rhode Island."
Primary Source Documents
Click on the thumbnails below to zoom in and explore these documents.
Law limiting terms of servitude, 1652
In 1652, the General Assembly voted to limit the period of indenture that any servant, Black or white, could be made to serve. It is considered the first anti-slavery law in the colonies, though it was not well enforced.
Legislation for the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, 1778
In 1778, the General Assembly authorized the creation of a regiment comprised of free and enslaved Black and Indigenous men. The law stated that previously enslaved men who served in the regiment would be free at the war’s end.
Roll Book for the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, 1781-1783
This page from the regimental roll book describes some of the men who enlisted in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.
Letter from Walter Taylor to Adj. General Mauran, 1862
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Rhode Island authorized the creation of a regiment of Black men to fight in the war. Men from around New England volunteered to join.
Letter from George Downing to Governor Smith, 1863
George Downing, a prominent businessman, objected to the description of the proposed “Colored” Regiment.
Petition for equal school rights, 1864
In 1864, Newport had segregated schools, and children who weren't white often had to walk long distances to get to their designated school. This petition asks for equal access to education.
Petition of Horace Greeley Wade, 1866
Soldiers were promised cash bounties for enlisting in the RI Regiment. Some were not given their full payments and had to appeal to the General Assembly to receive what was owed to them.
Petition for equal rights, 1870
This petition asks the General Assembly to pass a law making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of color or race.
Discussion Topics and Classroom Activities
4th grade and up
- What is the difference between being indentured and enslaved? In what ways were the lives of indentured and enslaved people similar? In what ways were they different?
- Read about the Triangle Trade. What places made up the three points of the triangle? What was shipped to and from each of these points?
- Do you think joining the 1st Rhode Island Regiment would have been an easy choice for an enslaved man, or a difficult one? Explain your answer.
- Look at the 1st Regiment Roll Book. How old is the youngest enlistee? How old is the oldest? What is the average age of enlistees? What is the median age? (Remember this is only one page of the book, so your answers may not apply to the whole regiment.)
- The author of the petition for equal school access wrote beautifully about the importance of education. Think of something really important to you and write a petition asking for it.
- Think about something you would like to change in your community. Write a petition that briefly explains what you want and see how many friends you can have sign it.
- The petition from Horace Greeley Wade says that he can’t read or write, and he signs his name with an “x.” How would you feel about signing or marking an agreement that you could not read?
- Horace Greeley Wade's petition is on a form. Does this suggest anything about how often soldiers were not given their promised bounties?
6th grade and up
- Read Walter Taylor and George Downing’s letters, and then look at the petitions about education and civil rights that follow. What do they tell you about racism in the north during the period of the Civil War?
- Equal access to education is an important issue, even today. Can you think of current barriers to equal education in Rhode Island? Look through your local newspaper to find a story about education access. How does this issue affect you?
- These petitions and letters are more than 100 years old, yet we are still working to address inequities in our state and country. What are some aspects of everyday life that aren’t equal for all people today? Why aren’t they equal? What could we do as a society to change this?
- The petition from Horace Greeley Wade says that he can’t read or write, and he signs his name with an “x.” Can you think of other instances (historically or in the present) where parties may have signed documents they could not read or understand? Have you ever been asked to sign something you couldn’t read or understand? What do you think about the validity of these documents?