“Misremembering Slavery”

Misremembering Slavery

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

Originally printed in If Jane Should Want to Be Sold: Stories of Enslavement, Indenture, and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island, 2016.

Once slavery ended in Little Compton, Rhode Island the community tried to forget it. For much of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries Little Compton joined with hundreds of other New England communities in efforts to minimize the history of slavery and forced indenture in the region. If mentioned at all, northern slavery was described as a gentler, somehow better institution than that practiced in the South. Little Compton even congratulated itself because its slavery was better than that of South County, Rhode Island.[1]

Since the 1940s scholars like Lorenzo Greene, Edgar McManus and William Piersen have worked to shed light on the realities of northern slavery.[2] More recently, historian and Rhode Island resident, Joanne Pope Melish has studied New England’s determined efforts to erase the realities of northern slavery and even the existence of people of color from its history in order to create a false image of a free, white, colonial New England. In the years before the Civil War this imaginary “good,” free, white North stood in stark contrast to the “bad,” slave-holding South, and led people to forget that both regions had a shared history of slavery stretching back to the first European settlements.[3] Despite half a century of important academic efforts, the existence of slavery, and more specifically the widespread nature of slavery, in New England remains a surprise to even well-educated members of the public.[4]

Little Compton’s early historians did not deny the existence of slavery in the community, but they wrote about it in a way that made every master seem kind and every enslaved person loyal. Throughout the twentieth century local authors presented the history of slavery in Little Compton through the telling and retelling of a single set of stories.[5] These stories describe the lives of a small number of slaves owned by one Little Compton family. Initially Joshua Richmond wrote the stories as part of a family genealogy and referred to them as interesting “anecdotes.”[6] They may never have been intended for anyone outside of his family, but precisely because they were interesting, local historians have been drawn to these few stories and have used them, almost exclusively, to tell the history of slavery in Little Compton. [7]

Written in 1897, the anecdotes describe warm, respectful, relationships between the successful white Richmonds and their responsible, loyal, talented slaves. These are exceptional stories about exceptional people, white and black. The stories are based on real events and, in some ways, are truthful, but they were family legends rather than historical facts, and their details are often contradicted by the historic record. The exceptional nature of the Richmond stories has created an inaccurate, overly positive, public perception of slavery in Little Compton. Their frequent retelling has also resulted in a disproportionate amount of attention on a single slave-owning family and a small number of their enslaved people. In the future these stories will play a smaller, more proportionate, roll in our local history because they can be placed in context with the new stories told in a recently published book, If Jane Should Want to Be Sold (2016), shedding light on the lives of dozens of other local enslaved people and slave-holding families. 

Little Compton’s best-known twentieth-century historian Benjamin Franklin Wilbour added to the local understanding of slavery with a page and a half of information in his Notes on Little Compton that introduced the idea of Indian slavery and presented some census information.[8] Very little else was written until recent years. When combined as a whole, the small number of Little Compton’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century histories addressing local slavery present it as a small-scale, short-lived, benign, curiosity rather than a harsh, significant economic and social institution that endured for 150 years and impacted hundreds of people, enslaved and free. 

Many of the old stories do not stand up to evidence-based examinations, but they should not be cast away. Even those that do not accurately represent local slavery remain useful as a way to understand how Little Compton once thought about slavery and itself. 

Newspaper editor David Patten wrote about standing in “Slave Row” at the grave of Primus Collins trying to explain slavery to his Portuguese playmate Mamie d’Azeveda. 

Mamie d’Azeveda couldn’t get over her amazement that one man could be the property of another. ‘Just lika cow? Just lika dish? Just lika bag of meal to maka the johnnycake?’ There was no end to the comparisons she made while trying to fix the idea in her mind, which she never succeeded in doing. I never told her that there were masters who punished their slaves for misbehavior by whipping them or caning them on their back. I knew what would happen if I told her that. Her eyes would open wide with surprise and for perhaps the next twenty times I saw her she would ask, ‘You mean that? You no foola?’ I would have to say it was true and then her big eyes would soften and the fat tears would begin to flow out of them.[9]

All of the people in David Patten’s stories can be found in Little Compton’s records except Mamie d’Azeveda. She may be a combination of more than one person, or she may be a symbol of the new twentieth-century Little Compton that Patten both loved and struggled to accept. Patten, who wrote in the 1940s and 1950s, knew that like Mamie, the people of Little Compton would struggle with the idea of slavery in their idyllic community. They might accept that it occurred, but its pervasiveness and harsh realities were still beyond their acceptance.

Twenty-first century local historians are beginning to add new voices to Little Compton’s stories of enslavement, and twenty-first century audiences are ready to accept them.[10] The Little Compton Historical Society’s 2016 slavery and freedom public history project was another step toward a deeper and more authentic understanding of enslavement, indenture and new-found freedom within the community. Slavery and forced indenture in Little Compton were not “interesting anecdotes” in the town’s history. They were brutal, enduring and widely-accepted institutions that provided great economic and social benefits for multiple generations of at least forty white families who owned enslaved and indentured people. Local families who did not own slaves also benefited from the labor and military service of unfree people, from the many job opportunities and new markets tied to the Triangular Trade, from the lowered taxes that resulted from the forced indenture of the poor and from the privileges associated with being white. Slavery and forced indenture stole the freedom of at least 250 men, women and children of color in Little Compton and established a system that fostered inequality even once they and their descendants were free. There is still more to be discovered about Little Compton’s people of color and still more to be learned from their stories.

[1] Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, Notes on Little Compton, (Little Compton Historical Society: Little Compton), 1970, p. 51.

[2] Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, (Atheneum: New York), 1971. First printed in 1942. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse), 1973. William D. Piersen, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England, (The University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst), 1988.

[3] Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860, (Cornell University Press: Ithaca), 1998.

[4] The Little Compton Historical Society has been researching local slavery since 2013, has shared their findings with the public and has documented anecdotal evidence of public reaction. 

[5] Please see Appendix 1 for a chart detailing the evolution of the stories in various local histories. 

[6] Joshua Bailey Richmond, The Richmond Family, 1594-1896 and pre-American Ancestors 1040-1594, (Boston: Published by the Compiler, MDCCCXCV11 (1897)), 74.

[7] Twenty-first century authors working with the Little Compton Historical Society have explored local slavery with a more critical eye. Please see: Lease Plimpton, “Primus Collins,” Portraits in Time, (Little Compton: Little Compton Historical Society, 2008), 41. Janet Lisle, The History of Little Compton, First Light Sakonnet1660-1820, (Little Compton: Little Compton Historical Society, 2010) 37, 87-93. Janet Lisle, The History of Little Compton, A Home By the Sea, 1820-1950, (Little Compton: Little Compton Historical Society, 1012) 23, 33, 76.

[8] Wilbour, Notes, 51-52.

[9] Patten, 100.

[10] Plimpton & Lisle.