To the Editor:
My South Kingstown family held the last person officially enslaved here. The history of our town is sometimes uncomfortable, but it must be publicly told.
My family’s involvement began when William Reynolds, my 9-times great grandfather, came to Providence in 1637 and soon began making his money in Bermuda, where after the Pequot War, New England settlers traded goods and local Indigenous People into slavery. In the mid-1600s, William’s son James Reynolds and wife Deborah Potter moved south to Narragansett Country, also called King’s Country. Their oldest son died during Metacomet’s War (King Phillip’s War). Even so, my family thrived at the end of the war by establishing slave plantations. Like other colonists, my ancestors acquired large landholdings after the 1675 Great Swamp Massacre (West Kingston), as the Narragansetts were severely weakened through widespread death and enslavement in the Caribbean.
These Narragansett Country slave plantations produced cheese and horses that were exported out of Newport to the West Indies’ slave plantations. My family records show African origins among most of the enslaved people on the Reynolds’ plantations, but they likely enslaved Indigenous People as well. At this time, about 20 major slave plantation families, the most powerful being the Hazards, controlled the land, wealth, and politics in Narragansett Country. Intermarriages were common among ‘Narragansett Planter’ families and my Reynolds married Hazards, Potters, Gardiners, and Babcocks. To put our local area in perspective, more enslaved people lived in Narragansett Country than all the other non-Rhode Island, New England colonies combined. Enslaved people comprised between 10 to 30 percent of the local population from the late 1600s to mid-1700s. These proportions of enslaved peoples were similar to the southern colonies, with other commonalities, such as the local systems of oppression and hierarchy.
In part because about 100 enslaved people fought for Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War, in 1784, the state passed a gradual emancipation act. James Reynolds’ grandson, Elisha Reynolds, settled in Little Rest (Kingston) and upon his death in 1791 ‘freed’ several, but not all, of his family’s enslaved people. State law required the town to reimburse ‘owners’ for the cost of raising enslaved children, but it did not provide for any ‘freedom funds’ to help newly freed adults start their life over. During this time, it was extremely challenging for newly freed people to sustain themselves and providing relief to destitute adults was considered the responsibility of the town.
By 1793, the Town Council began refusing requests to emancipate adult slaves because of a tax uprising among the citizens. Our Town Council declared, “the Town ought not to be put in jeopardy of any expense whatever.” For the next two decades, the Town Council frequently ruled that the freedom of enslaved people was not worth the potential increase in taxes. A decade into the new century, Elisha Reynolds Potter brought John Potter, South Kingstown’s last enslaved person before the Town Council to argue that John could sustain himself. The Town Council agreed and 21-year-old John was a free person in 1810. Even so, the general lack of access to land, newly passed laws preventing whites from marrying Black or Indigenous People, and laws permitting only property owners to vote severely limited newly freed people from prospering.
The historical concentrations of wealth shaped South Kingstown. In the 19th Century, the Hazards no longer ran slave plantations but used this wealth to build mills that manufactured rough, durable, woolen cloth. This material, known as Kersey Cloth (slave cloth), was directly marketed by the Hazards to southern plantation owners, where the Hazards made frequent trips. Peace Dale was named after Mary Peace Hazard, a Charleston, South Carolina native whose family connected northern merchants with slave plantations. The Hazard family story is complex, at once containing strong abolitionists and generous philanthropists, while simultaneously having their business centered on profiting from the slave economy. To this day, South Kingstown still benefits from the old slave cloth business. The Village Green, the Cottage Hospital, Library, Guild, Hazard School and the original Peace Dale School House were gifted by the Hazard family. Kersey Cloth was so important to the town that Kersey Road was named after the slave cloth made in the nearby mills.
My child is in middle school and this local history was not taught to her in SK schools. South Kingstown must do more to publicize this past to its school children, residents and visitors. Bristol, Newport, Providence, and Warren all participate in the Port Markers Project, which recognizes their seaports as part of the transatlantic human trade with highly visible public memorials. It is time for SK town government to also make clear that our town’s wealth and beautiful public spaces came from affluence generated by the occupation of Narragansett land and the comprehensive participation in the slave economy. December 19th is the anniversary of the 1675 Great Swamp massacre, a good time for our entire community to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth of our past. I hope you will join me in urging the Town Council to meet with the creators of the Port Markers Project and Tomaquag Museum to begin creating South Kingstown’s version of this highly visible public recognition that must also encompass enslaved and Indigenous People’s perspective and stories.