photo of John Brown House at dusk
Twilight at Providence's John Brown House, now a museum. The house was built in 1788 by merchant, politician, patriot, and slave trader John Brown.Photo: rythum vinoben

Northern Aggression
A Brown symposium looks at the key role Rhode Island—and all of New England—played in the slave trade.

By Jack Brook ’19 / July/August 2019
July 8th, 2019

“New England is up to its ears in slave-grown cotton” says associate professor of history Seth Rockman, whose work examines slavery’s central role in the development of global and American capitalism. We talk about New England as a free economy, which Rockman says is “obviously misleading. Yet we don’t have a way of talking about New England as an outpost of a slave economy.” 

To start finding the words, staff and professors at the History Department, Watson Institute, and Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion partnered with organizations including the Rhode Island Council of Humanities to host a three-day symposium, “Slavery’s Hinterlands: Capitalism and Bondage in Rhode Island and Across the Atlantic World.” The May event dispensed with the air-brushed version of Rhode Island history that obscures the  connections the state—and the region—had with the slave trade.  

In Rhode Island, textile factory Slater Mill is often celebrated as the birthplace of the American industrial revolution. But it was also a crucial part of the slave economy. Built in 1793, the mill relied on the labor of women and children to manufacture textiles out of raw cotton from the South. That cotton was picked by enslaved people—and Northern mills like Slater produced materials such as “negro cloth,” used to clothe the enslaved population.

“People are consistently surprised at this history, that Rhode Island had anything to do with the slave trade,” says Joey DeFrancesco, a public historian and Slater Mill tour guide. “Yet there was a close relationship between early industrial capitalism and mass enslavement in the United States.” 

Brown’s role
On a chilly Saturday, C. Morgan Grefe ’00 AM, ’05 PhD, led a group of visitors through the John Brown House museum, outlining the Brown family’s involvement in the slave trade. Brown, with his brothers Nicholas, Joseph, and Moses, helped found the University and donated the land on which it now stands, at which point the school took on the Brown name. John Brown served as the University’s treasurer from 1775 to 1796.

“John Brown was an ardent defender of the slave trade,” said Grefe, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society. “And that aspect of capitalism is very much embedded in the material culture of this house, in the walls, in the mahogany, in the decorative arts here.” 

“Slavery was a core feature of the normal political and economic life of the United States rather than some outlier that was contradictory to our founding values.” 

She pointed out a beautiful blue porcelain bowl, depicting a looming fortified castle where Africans were  imprisoned before they could be sold to European and American traders, as an example of the normalization of the slave trade in everyday life.  

Grefe explained how, in 1764, John and his three brothers funded and outfitted a slave ship, the Sally, to bring back Africans—one of over 900 slaving voyages embarking from Rhode Island, collectively responsible for importing over 100,000 Africans to the Americas, where they were offered for sale as enslaved laborers. The Sally represented a particularly brutal example: of the 196 Africans on board, at least 109 died over the course of the voyage. 

Though John Brown’s brother, Moses, later became a prominent abolitionist, he was also the main financier behind Slater Mill, and thus continued to profit from enslaved labor.

Living history
Outside the museum, Elon Cook-Lee ’14 AM, program director and curator for the Center for Reconciliation (CFR), gathered a tour group at the intersection of Power and Brown streets. After graduating with a master’s in Public Humanities, Cook-Lee became a founding staff member of the CFR, which facilitates dialogues around racism, race, and slavery to educate and move individuals and groups toward active engagement in anti-racism work. 

“I want you all to be thinking of these streets as metaphors,” said Cook-Lee, wearing a jacket emblazoned “Museums are Not Neutral.” 

Further down, Power joins Benefit Street. Think about how power accumulated capital through the slave trade, Cook-Lee urged, and how that power and capital remain embedded in our society today. 

Another tour, led by Marco McWilliams, Swearer Center Program Coordinator at Times2 STEM Academy, Black Studies Scholar, and founding instructor of the community-based Black Studies FREEdom School, focused on black history on College Hill into the 20th century and the repercussions of slavery. Beginning at the historically African American Olney Street Baptist Church, McWilliams looked at “what kind of agency black folks living right here in Providence took up to create lives amongst themselves to resist slavery.”

At one stop, for instance, McWilliams discussed black student activism at nearby Hope High School in the late 1960s to improve public education—an important part of understanding the afterlife of slavery in the structural racism of New England and the rest of the United States, which became “naturalized,” he says—so much a part of our culture that it’s not questioned by the mainstream.

Reframing capitalism 
The symposium also sought to get rid of the “fairy tale” of capitalism, by shifting the perception that the violence and exploitation of slavery were merely aberrations in the United States economy, says Daniel Denvir, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute who helped organize the event. 

Denvir facilitated a series of discussions for the Jacobin magazine podcast “The Dig,” publicly interviewing Brown professors and public historians to illuminate the complex systems of oppression that enabled American chattel slavery to persist. 

“When we actually understand how slavery, along with indigenous dispossession and genocide, was a core feature of the normal political and economic life of the United States rather than some outlier that was contradictory to our founding values,” Denvir says, “we see that in fact we had one system of racial capitalism in this country and that the South and the North each played key, indispensable roles in this system.”

In linking the exploitation of poor white labor in Northern factories like Slater Mill with mass enslavement in the South, Denvir argues that a more fruitful resistance to contemporary racism and economic inequality can emerge, one that bridges the divide between people of color and the working-class whites. Slater Mill also illustrates how laborers have consistently reacted against their exploitation, he says. In 1824, one hundred young female mill workers organized America's first factory strike, successfully forcing concessions from the mill’s owners. For Denvir, these forms of activism should not be considered historically separate from resistance to Southern slavery. 

“If we understand that the histories of capitalism, slavery, and empire are one and the same,” Denvir says, “then we are much better equipped now to make a politics that fights them all simultaneously.”



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