[00:00:00] Lauren Walker: You're listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online.
Hello, I'm Lauren Walker from the Rhody Radio Crew and Coventry Public Library. This episode, How To Talk About Slavery, is presented by Ray Rickman, co-founder and executive director of Stages of Freedom, a nonprofit that teaches swimming to children of color and provides African-American cultural programs to thousands of Rhode Islanders of all races. Rickman regularly does speaking engagements, and one of the topics about which he is most passionate is how to talk about slavery.
If you have a chance to attend one of his talks in-person, you'll hear him draw on his extensive knowledge of both Rhode Island history and African-American history and culture to highlight the effect slavery had and continues to have on this state. He explains the economic basis of slavery and its African origins, and he provides detailed information on how many Rhode Islanders were involved and how it elevated the entire economy of the state.
In this podcast, Rickman provides an introduction to the topic of slavery in Rhode Island and the problematic idea that slavery was a Southern problem, with Northern slavery often inaccurately portrayed as either non-existent or less brutal. Without further ado, here's Ray Rickman.
Ray Rickman: Up the river, the kind of medium size boat went. It belonged to Esek Hopkins, slave dealer from Rhode Island, worked for The Brown Brothers, shown to be notorious, awful, evil slave catchers. Not them, they always hired help. This is how [00:02:00] American slavery operated. I'm Ray Rickman and for about 40 years, I have been interested in slavery, particularly in Rhode Island. Lately, as executive director of Stages of Freedom, I've become the leading advocate of discussing slavery in Rhode Island. Up the river he comes from the African Coast, goes into a village. I'm researching the name. We know the name of the river. I'm researching to figure out which village it is.
The Brown family has 64 boxes of notes, and I believe in those notes I will find the actual village. They take out their clubs and the like, and they beat all the men. Most of the men run off. They have these iron mask, kind of semi-steel, and they put them on the men's heads. They're gruesome. They're actually frightening to look at if you've ever seen one. They take a seven year old boy and they put him in a gunny sack. I don't know if they hit him or not. It depended on how much he resisted. What did they do this for? Mr. Brown, John Brown, future United States Congressman, soon to be possibly the richest man in America, the creator of Brown University, actually he and his brother Moses created Slater Mill, the beginning of the American industrial revolution.
This powerful family wanted a seven year old boy. Why? Because seven year old boys, you can strip them of their name. You [00:04:00] can strip them of almost their entire culture, take them from their mother, take them from their father, take them from their family, take them from their religion, and I'm just beginning to get started. It's really sick to strip a human being like this and to do it at six or seven years old. They want them at this age so they can do some work to cover the cost. They don't want five-year-olds. It had to be frightening for a seven-year-old to enter this brand new world and underneath the ships. Oh, it's sickening. It's cruel. It is as low as human beings can think.
I want you to understand how sick the American forms of slavery were, and I want you to think about the millions of enslaved Africans who died at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean from disease, death. If they revolt it in any way, they would kill one or two to show the other 200 what could happen to them. Now every time I think about this, I think about how we teach slavery, not at all, or how we lie in New England, "Slavery was mild." Now how's slavery going to be mild for a young seven-year-old being stripped of everything that he happened to be and brought into the bowel of a ship to be chained? This is not mild. Rhode Island historians should quit lying, and Rhode Islanders should [00:06:00] quit lying.
Slavery was not mild in any form.
Let's go to the other end of it. It's mild in New England, it's not like the South. It's not. 90% of slaves lived in an attic with no fireplace and no heat or in a basement that was damp. No fireplace, no heat. If they weren't living there, they were living in a barn or some kind of garage, no heat. No heat in the New England winters. Think about that for a second. The number one thing I tell people is quit telling this lie that New England slavery was mild.
Now, were people killed like on a plantation? On a plantation they would kill one person or two people every other year, and the reason they did it was to intimidate, frighten, scare the other 199 people or 1,000 people in that plantation. Well, in Rhode Island, there were one, two, three and the Brown had eight slaves, but that was unusual. People would have one, two, three slaves. You see in the newspaper ads that a woman will sell her slave, and it says, "My husband has died," and she doesn't want to take a chance with Black, particularly, male slave in the household, and so out they go.
This is a rough, negative, undecent endeavor, which started in Latin America in 1519, and then in Virginia in 1619, and then the ship sails into Newport and we have slavery in Rhode Island 1640 coming [00:08:00] forward until 1866 in Texas. Slavery, in which up to 80% to 90% of Black people were enslaved and often shackled, beaten, working in rice fields and dying in the Caribbean on the average of just seven years of working in those rice fields with the insects biting them and sometimes alligators and the like. In the South, losing four or five years of life.
Yes, it's true in Connecticut, in Rhode Island in Massachusetts, they might only lose one or two years of life, but they're on the road to unhealthiness, which will affect their children and grandchildren for hundreds of years, diabetes, high blood pressure, all from eating bad food and being mistreated sometimes for 150 years. That's how we ought to talk about slavery and we should not hide from it.
First thing I ever went to event in Rhode Island, I had been here about a year and Al Kleberg, a former executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, invited me to talk on slavery. I go to the John Brown house and there are 50 people in the room. First, I'm shocked I'm the only African-American in that whole room. Just shocked. I'm learning how segregated Rhode Island is. A talk on slavery and only one Black person shows up. Later I found out I was the only one invited.
I'm there and the session goes okay, the speaker's okay. I probably gave him a A-, [00:10:00] I thought he handled himself very well. At the end, one negative probably awful question after another comes up, four or five of them, and the man, a scholar from Boston, he's tired of the audience mildly abusing him. T
hen someone asks the question, "Were there slave tunnels from the Providence River up to the John Brown house into the basement of the John Brown house? Now, remember, this is some of the hardest stone in the world, not in Rhode Island. It's some of the hardest stone. It's not till 1911 when they had blasting caps that they can make a tunnel from down below up to their street. It cannot be done.
It's also a stupid question because slavery is legal. Why do you have to have a secret tunnel for? Why do you have to spend hundreds of men, I'll use that word, men hours to dig a tunnel? Why would the Browns have newly arrived slaves in their house in their basement, either hiding them or whatever, when they can have them down on the river, they can have met their farm, they can do things until the slave has lost their attitudes or animosity or whatever the new person from West Africa might have. After the man asked the ridiculous question, the person, the guest speaker says, "No, there were no tunnels, you couldn't dig them." Almost everybody in that room starts laughing.
Then one of them says, "If there were no tunnels, how do we know [00:12:00] there was slavery?" Now it's the most irrational, ridiculous response, but over the years, I've heard a lot of that, a great deal of it. Excuses for slavery, lies about slavery and protecting the families that did it. Protecting them against the truth. Now, what is this all about? Someone asked me why am I so persistent in getting out and talking about slavery in public libraries? Any place anybody will have me I show up and talk about it, and in more detail than this podcast is going to have this evening.
I tell them that we stand on these foundations. It's simple as that. We are our grandparents and great-grandparents. If they're running around saying that Blacks were treated well, and if Black people were having trouble, it's probably Black people's fault. Never mind that they were entangled. and enslaved, and abused, and spat upon and not permitted to rise as a people. Never mind that. We're all equal. If I hear that one more time from someone whose grandfather was rich and sent them to the best college and gave them their first house as a wedding present, who gets a house as a wedding present? A descendant of the slave dealer. Not the descendant of slaves.
How dumb, that's a nice word, how dumb do you have to be not to know that slavery has its effects for hundreds of years? Again, diabetes is an example of it. Black people don't swim. That's because in the south, they're not permitted to. They were on plantations and they were not permitted to swim. Then it gets more [00:14:00] complicated than that. We are acculturated.
My mother had spirit and drive and fortitude and a lack of fear and enough sense to get out of Alabama. You put all that together, and I am who I am. Now think opposite with the mother being a maid and barely making a living because her mother and grandmothers were slaves in Rhode Island and never permitted a bank loan until the 1970s.
That's the podcast, dealing with the brutality of slavery and how it affects every aspect of our lives, promotes white supremacy. It is horrible. We should not lie and hide and refuse to talk about race and racism because it hurts us all. Every single person in the society is hurt by slavery and its aftermath. I tell people about Stages of Freedom, if you want to help, if you want to get involved on the lowest level, invite us to your Kiwanas or your church or whatever to talk, or make a donation, or you're sitting on a foundation board, tell them to do more than they are doing for the children of slaves.
Now, final comment. My grandmother was the daughter of a slave and I knew it as a child. This idea that all of these problems, issues, concerns are in the far rear view window is not true. Slaves were recorded in [00:16:00] WPA program as late as 1936 and could have been even later. Remember, Black folks almost always die a little earlier than white folks and most of that has to do with slavery.
I've been in about 17 libraries, I get a little confused because I've been in 18 libraries separately discussing race and racism. I've been in 17 libraries discussing slavery. I do maybe two of those a year. It is fascinating. Only once did this go wrong. In of all places Bristol, Rhode Island, they had to call the police because white supremacists came and didn't threaten me, they threatened the library for bringing someone like me to talk about slavery. So, there are people in this state that don't believe in the truth. I take every single opportunity to talk about the truth about slavery.
Hope you heard me, Stages of Freedom, plain old phone number 401-421-0606. You can go to Stages of Freedom's website, stagesoffreedom.org and visit with us and again, feel free to invite us to come to Barrington or Burrillville or wherever to talk directly with you about slavery and race equality. Thank you.
Lauren: Thank you for listening. You can find more information about Stages of Freedom and Ray Rickman's talks at www.stagesoffreedom.org. [00:18:00] Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the Book and brought to you by library staff and community members all around the ocean state. This episode was made possible by an American Rescue Plan humanities grants for libraries, which is an initiative of the American Library Association made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
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