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Slavery Persisted in New England Until the 19th Century

June 29, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

The colony of Rhode Island once had the highest percentage of enslaved people in New England, and was a dominant player in the global slave trade.

Slavery was a dominant feature of the antebellum South, but it was also pervasive in the pre-Civil War North—the New England states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island all have a history of slavery. In the early colonial period, Europeans invaded these lands and enslaved the Native people who lived there.

As New England colonists drove Native nations out of their homes, they replaced these enslaved Native people with enslaved Africans and invested heavily in the slave trade to power their economy.

Rhode Island addressed its history of slavery on June 22, 2020 when Governor Gina Raimondo announced that the state’s official name—“Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”—would no longer appear on state documents. Instead, the state will just identify itself as “Rhode Island.”

Slavery Was ‘Integral’ to Building Northeast Cities

“Most of the general public in the U.S. has no understanding of the very long history of slavery in the northern colonies and the northern states,” says Christy Clark-Pujara, a professor of history and Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island.

“They don’t have a sense that slavery was integral to the building of New York City and places like Newport and Providence, that many of these cities had upwards of 20 percent of their populations enslaved…and that slavery lasted in the North well into the 1840s,” she says. “Some states, like New Jersey, never abolished slavery, so slavery legally ends there in 1865.”

Colonist Roger Williams coined Rhode Island’s longer name in the 17th century, at a time when the word “plantation” referred to a new settlement. The word evolved during the 19th century, becoming synonymous with the enslavement of Black people on large farms. This is the meaning it has today, and the main reason why activists have previously called for Rhode Island to take “plantation” out of its name.

Yet even in the 17th century sense, the word “plantation” signified European colonization, a violent practice intertwined with slavery, says Margaret Ellen Newell, a history professor at The Ohio State University and author of Brethren by Nature: New England …read more


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