Medallions aim to educate about one state’s involvement in slave trade

Black History Month

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. (WPRI) ─ A new, innovative project is shining a light on the hidden history of Rhode Island. Slave medallions are being placed throughout the Ocean State marking the role each city played in the Triangular Slave Trade.

Each medallion contains a QR code, which when scanned with a smart phone links the user to the Rhode Island Slave History website, where they can learn more about the state’s involvement.

“Blacks, Indians, indentured white servants and farm boys got together for the first time and held the British and the Hessians in the first Battle of Rhode Island,” Rhode Island Slave History Medallions chairman Charles Roberts said of the park’s history.

Patriots Park in Portsmouth was the first of many medallions to be installed as part of the project, according to Roberts.

“It’s a hidden history and what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to tell the unvarnished truth about slave history,” he said.

Roberts said the view of Narragansett Bay from the park looked a lot different in the 17-1800s.

“Ships from Newport and other ports like Bristol, and Warren, and Providence were sent to West Africa where rum was traded for Africans who were captured and kidnapped from their tribe,” Roberts explained.

Roberts said back then, slaves were a necessity in Rhode Island.

“They were used as chattel to produce and cut and bring the sugarcane that was turned into molasses there and brought to our port,” he said.

When slavery was abolished, he said there was nowhere for the slaves to go back to.

“How they were used, were like indentured servants. This is why there is a disparity in economics today because they didn’t want to give them freedom,” Roberts said.

The QR codes, Roberts said, serve as a gateway linking Rhode Islanders and tourists to information that he believes is essential.

“Slavery and the institution of slavery erases your culture, your cultural identity,” he said.

Newport native and enslaved artisan Pompe Stevens created the angel seen on each medallion. It’s a bold statement, which Roberts said signifies that Africans helped create the Rhode Island we know today.

“We bring out of the darkness into the light the true history of all of us,” he said.

Roberts said the next step is to make sure there is intergenerational knowledge. He said he plans to take this project into the classrooms next.

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