Last month, the Providence City Council passed a resolution declaring support for the Rhode Island Middle Passage Project. This is the local chapter of a nationwide effort now underway to install historic markers memorializing the lives of Africans who were the victims of the transatlantic slave trade. Rhode Island has four sites identified as places for such markers. On Thursday afternoon, April 7, the statewide committee coordinating this effort meets to plan the next steps.
Professor Emily Kugler joined RIPR's Chuck Hinman in the studio to talk about the effort. She serves on the Advisory Board of the national organization, the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project. She’s also an assistant professor of English at Howard University in Washington, DC..
Perhaps we should start with a reminder of what is meant by the term middle passage?
The middle passage refers to the voyages that sent enslaved people from Africa, brought by European traders, into the Americas, and this spread from North and South America, into the Caribbean. And what is also important for New England history is that we have to remember that this also went both ways. Captured Pequots, for example, from the Pequot Wars, and from King Philip’s War, as well as other indigenous people, were also sent to the Caribbean, and occasionally even to Africa and to Europe.
What was the extent of Rhode Island’s involvement in the slave trade?
In terms of producing ships, outfitting ships and sending ships out to Africa, Rhode Island was the major supplier. And if you think about the number of people who arrive in such places as South Carolina, those were on Rhode Island ships. And this is not to forget that we also had enslaved people and their descendants who lived here as well, but Rhode Island was a global player in the transatlantic slave trade.
Now what is the history of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project?
The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project was founded in 2011, by Ann Chinn. The project seeks to do several things. One is to commemorate those Africans who were transported in the middle passage, those who survived and those who didn’t. They also research and identify all ports of entry for Africans during the 350 years of the transatlantic human trade. We encourage local communities to hold remembrance ceremonies to recognize these sites, and we also encourage placement of markers, so that we can publically acknowledge, and people can look and learn about this history, and hopefully want to know more.
The project has identified four sites in Rhode Island, correct? What are those spots?
At the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, we rely on the Voyages Transatlantic Slave Trade database. Now this is one source, it’s a very rich resource. It’s not every ship, but it does list ships that we know brought in slave people, and we found ships for Providence, for Warren, for Bristol and for Newport.
This database, is this something online that you can look up?
Yes you can. Everyone can go and look into this and find ship names, find numbers of people, both forced and free, and I encourage people to look for it.
What was the address again?
It’s the Voyages Transatlantic Slave Trade Database.
So if you google that you’ll find it.
Right now we’re looking for people who want to be involved. We do have a few core members at each site, and we’re hoping to grow. We want to involve local communities, and this includes academics and universities, this includes historical organizations, this also includes other community groups, and churches and other local organizations interested in questions of history and social justice. We want this to come from these communities. This is often about first steps. It’s about gathering people together, educating, amplifying and recognizing the work that’s being done in these locations. In Rhode Island for example, an amazing amount of research is being done already on this history. And that’s what we want to draw more attention to.
As far as placing a marker, are they standardized, these markers? Or are they just developed, each individual site on its own?
This is a global story, it’s a national story, but it’s also a very local story, so each marker should be developed individually. What’s unique about Rhode Island is that we’re actually coordinating all four sites together, so I’m very curious to see what comes out of this. Especially since Rhode Island has such a rich history in terms of design and art. There are a few things that should be there. It should be historically accurate. It should mention the middle passage. And it should acknowledge the role of enslaved people and their descendants in those communities. But, where the marker is placed, how it looks, this is determined at the local level. And if people have ideas, they should come to the meetings and share them with us.
Well alright, Dr. Emily Kugler, thanks for coming by and educating us on this effort so far.
Thank you very much for having me.