“Doing Black History in White Communities”

Doing Black History in White Communities

By Marjory Gomez O’Toole, Executive Director, Little Compton Historical Society

According to the Federal Census the population of Little Compton, Rhode Island was less than 1% African American and Native American (combined) in 2010. There were small numbers of people from other racial and ethnic groups listed, but in 2010, and still today in 2021 (as we eagerly await the results of the new census) Little Compton was/is an almost exclusively white community. We also happen to be a white community with more than 300 years of local Black and Indigenous history, most of which the public and many local historians have forgotten.

In 2016 the Little Compton Historical Society led a year-long public history project exploring the history of Little Compton’s people of color from the 1600s to the twentieth century. Historical Society members, town residents, and the wider community were incredibly receptive. By all accounts the project was a huge success: it improved the histories we told, expanded our audience, reconnected descendants of local people of color to their ancestors’ histories, enhanced the Historical Society’s reputation in the field, created quality educational resources, and exceeded our fundraising goals.   

The project’s research began a good five years before its public-facing programs took place in 2016. Thorough, well-footnoted, research was one important reason our audience members responded so well to the often surprising and frequently troubling information shared by the project. Project components included a special exhibition (now a traveling exhibition) and a book, both entitled “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold: Stories of Enslavement, Indenture, and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island.” Other offerings included a dataset that is now part of Enslaved.org, a newly interpreted indentured servant’s room in our historic house museum allowing us to easily share the local story of slavery and forced indenture with museum visitors, a lecture series featuring regional scholars, free school programs for middle school students, and opportunities for us to speak with local, regional, and national audiences.

The project reached over 4,000 people in its first year, many of whom had no idea that people were once enslaved in Little Compton. Only four people voiced negative reactions. They were statistically insignificant, and after their comments were politely but firmly addressed, they were ignored, and to the best of my ability, forgotten. 

One of our best strategies as a small historical society is to offer the public something new every year.  This brings our local audience members back annually and keeps us sustainable, but at the end of a project year it might seem to outsiders that we are “done” with that subject and have moved on. That is not the case. We will never be done with Black History. We will never be done with Indigenous History. Just as we are never done with the histories of our European settlers or our Portuguese immigrants or our summer colony. We are never done learning, and as we learn new things, we incorporate them into subsequent projects. Black and Indigenous people made up 10% of our population in 1755. They were clearly a significant part of our community’s history, and now we do our best to make sure they are a significant part of the local histories our Historical Society shares with the public.

In the past five years we have seen numerous New England communities take on similar slavery and Black history projects. We applaud them and hope to collaborate with them as we all continue to study the lives of New England’s people of color and share their stories with the public. In time we will all benefit from dozens, if not hundreds, of individual community efforts that can be woven together to tell ever more authentic and more inclusive histories.

I hope the following lessons learned during the initial phases of our slavery and freedom project may help others doing similar work.

1. Ask for Help Early

Early in your project announce what you are doing to your community, in person and online. Share what you already know and what you hope to learn as a result of your work. Most importantly, ask for help. People will help you, just as they helped me.

Once I put some of my work on social media (Facebook and Twitter), researchers throughout New England began sending me links to “Little Compton” documents they had discovered doing their own work. I never would have found some of these documents without their help, and some of these documents made huge differences in the histories I eventually wrote.

About a year before our book was published, I invited the public to a project launch meeting at the local community center. I really hoped to connect with people who were descended from Little Compton’s people of color. The Associated Press picked up our press release and newspapers on the other side of the country ran the story. At the end of the community meeting a woman walked up to me and handed me copies of her ancestors’ freedom papers. Though her ancestors were Little Compton people their freedom papers were filed in the neighboring town. Again, I never would have found them without her help. Sippo and Cate Cook have a place of honor in our book because their 5th-great-granddaughter (who happens to identify as white) reached out to help me.

A few months later, descendants of slaveowners also shared documents with us including a bill of sale and a rental agreement for enslaved people. Because documents like these did not need to be filed with government officials, they are rare survivals, often in private hands. Their owners decided the time was right to bring these documents out of the family trunk and into the light of day, in part because we tried to cultivate a spirit of community collaboration and in part because we decided that shame was not a useful tool. 

2. Think Beyond Your Own Historic Site

Researching the enslaved, indentured, or free people of color who lived at a particular historic site, is a wonderful way to begin, but if time and resources allow, I strongly encourage you to look more broadly at the site’s neighborhood or entire community. Northern slavery was an institution that impacted entire communities. Researching it in that way yields a wealth of interconnected stories, while talking about slavery at the community level helps the public see how extensive it was and how all free people benefited from the unpaid labor of the enslaved.

The Little Compton Historical Society operates the Wilbor House Museum. We use the Wilbor House as a stage to tell the broader history of the town of Little Compton. Our research did not turn up any evidence of slavery at the Wilbor House itself, but we think it is important for visitors to understand that 20% of the households in colonial Little Compton did enslave people, and that their unpaid labor kept prices low for everyone and their military service preserved white lives.

We did discover that an “Indian girl” named Fal Solomon was ordered into indenture by the town council and given to the Wilbor family. Fal’s story, and the room in the museum that we have interpreted as her sleeping quarters, is a way for us to introduce the town’s broader interconnected histories of local indenture and slavery to our visitors.

3. Embrace the Entanglements Between Indigenous and African Slavery

Though your research project may be centered on recording instances of African and African American slavery, please also record any references to Indigenous slavery that you may find.

Indigenous slavery pre-dates African slavery in New England and throughout the Americas. Though it is sometimes hard to determine if an Indigenous person is enslaved or indentured, in my own work I found concrete evidence of life-long slavery inflicted on local Indigenous people. Indigenous people from the South, sometimes called Carolina or Spanish Indians, were also enslaved locally, and often worked side by side with enslaved people of African descent. Biracial and multiracial people were frequently enslaved, and the racial labels applied to them sometimes changed from document to document. Someone who was listed as “Indian” in 1760 might be listed as “Black” in 1780. Please don’t ignore Indigenous slavery. It is important in its own right, but because the two practices are so entangled, gathering information on Indigenous slavery will likely shed light on African slavery in your community too.

4. Don’t Stop With Slavery

Black history in New England does not begin or end with slavery. We need to tell the whole story. Record evidence of free people of color, record evidence of indenture, and record instances of racism in your community. Slavery, indenture, freedom, and racism are inextricably intwined.

My own project began as a 20-page research paper on African/African American slavery in Little Compton. I quickly learned that I could not tell the story of slavery without indenture. Enslaved and indentured people both appeared in probate inventories working side by side in local households. Gradual emancipation led to indenture. The children of the enslaved were often indentured. It was sometimes impossible to tell if someone was enslaved or indentured. Telling both the indenture and the enslavement stories in my community resulted in a more complex, complete, and nuanced history of local unfreedom.

As I continued my research, I was surprised to learn how many locally enslaved people somehow found a path to freedom. Not all of course, but enough that it became essential to research and write about newly free people in the community, like James Fobes, an African or African American man who was free in Little Compton in 1720, running the windmill that he partially owned, and benefiting from the work of an unnamed “mulatto boy” who was his indentured servant.  I had no idea there were free African/African American people living in Little Compton during the Colonial era, especially as early as 1720. It is important to tell their stories.

Finally, shortly before we went to press, I had a moment where I reflected on my work regarding slavery, indenture, and freedom and I thought, “So what? This is interesting, but what impact will it have on today’s world?” That reflection prompted me to include a chapter on local racism. Little Compton was no more or less racist than any other New England community, but over and over there were instances where people of color were free but clearly not equal. People would not sell them land. Public school teachers mocked them. Summer residents refused to have them on their property. Writing the chapter on racism was the scariest. I was including minstrel show photographs of prominent, now deceased, community members, and direct quotes from  people’s grandparents and aunts and uncles that would make anyone cringe. This was not to shame or embarrass these families. I wanted to clearly connect the dots between slavery and the racist practices that have haunted New England’s people of color as a means of control ever since. A colleague told me, “Don’t worry. No one is going to be surprised that their grandfather was a racist.” And no one was.

5. Black History is Local History

What is true in my community may not be true in your community even though they are both in New England or even in the same state. Like so many aspects of history the institution of slavery was in many ways governed locally and certainly practiced locally. Be alert to patterns and practices specific to your community and record and write about them as a contribution to the broader regional history.

In Little Compton no record keeper used the word “mustee.” Clerks in other towns used “mustee” to describe people living in Little Compton, but Little Compton’s clerks preferred to word “mulatto” when referring to those same people. Little Compton’s indentured servants were released at age 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Other towns in Rhode Island forcibly indentured children until ages 21 and 24. Learning the historic peculiarities of your community is essential to understanding your local history of slavery and freedom. Documenting and sharing those peculiarities helps chip away at the broad historic generalizations that mute the fascinating nuances of New England’s history.

6. Be Confident Moving Forward

This work is daunting. Be confident that together we can move, one step at a time, if necessary, toward a more truthful and inclusive history of northern slavery and freedom.

Some people will tell you this work is impossible.  It is not. They will say there are no records. That is not true. In Little Compton we found over 1,000 records related to people of color. You just have to look for them.

You might be afraid that your board or your community will resist or reject this work. My board, which included several 90-year-olds and several descendants of local enslavers, was ready. They agreed to do the slavery and freedom project unanimously with no discussion to the contrary. My wealthy, white community was also ready, and they donated generously to make sure we could complete the project. The time is right. Your board will agree. The majority of your audience will appreciate your work. Telling the story of slavery in your community is not controversial anymore; it is required.

As a local historian I typically tell stories. Truthful, well-researched, stories that explain the history of our community in a way that is accessible and engaging to the public. Once, an academic historian (kindly) commented on the lack of argument in my work and referred to the personal histories of the enslaved in Little Compton as “just stories.” They are just stories, but those stories have returned the voices of hundreds of forgotten people to our local history and have taught hundreds of ordinary living people about local slavery and fight for freedom. Trying to impose an overarching argument on those personal stories would have pushed me to privilege some stories over others in order to support an argument. I don’t want to do that. So go ahead and share the well-researched stories of historic people of color in your community. Don’t worry about argument. I promise you the stories are enough.

And what if you can only do a few stories, not all of them. That’s fine. Something is always better than nothing, and you may inspire someone to pick up where you left off. What if you make a mistake, because you missed a document, or made an assumption? That’s ok, too. You can fix it later. Or someone else can. Be transparent, be open to revisions when they are called for. Consider your work an invitation to others to add what they know.  

Finally, as a white woman with a bachelor’s degree in Biology while I was working on this project, I was acutely aware that I was not the ideal person to be doing this work. Surely, it would be better for a person of color or a “real” historian to be leading this effort, but, and this is a very big but, no person of color and no real historian was available or interested at the time. It was just me, at least at the beginning, and I was certainly better than nothing, and I could and did reach out to others.

Throughout the project I sought connections to descendants of Little Compton’s people of color and welcomed the stories, documents, and photographs they shared with me. I did the same with the local tribes. Their contributions were valuable, and the project helped build lasting and I hope mutually beneficial relationships. I also enlisted the help of several Ph.D. historians and authors who “checked my work” and were incredibly generous with their time and their experience.

7. Celebrate this History

Researching and writing about slavery and racism is very sad work. There were days when I sat in an archive in tears. Audience members cried at our exhibit opening. Every year, I feel sorry for the eighth graders who come on our 17th century field trip and learn about local slavery for the first time. It is hard emotional work to digest it all, but it needs to be done, and it is right to celebrate its doing.

We can and should celebrate:

        The lives of historic people of color.

     Repairing broken histories.

         The end of slavery.

         Connecting to ancestors.

         Progress toward equal rights.

The truth. The truth is unassailable.