Carolina's Company: The Slave Legacy Controversy in New England

Work Cited:

Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860

by Joanne Pope Melish

George W. Bush and John McCain may be counting down the days until the South Carolina primary, relieved that soon reporters will quit pestering them about that Confederate flag-flying issue. But this could just be the beginning. Rhode Island's primary is coming up March 7. Or shall we say Rhode Island and Providence Plantations' primary?

This tiny state's real name has launched New England's own slave legacy controversy. Rhode Island and Providence Plantations gets its moniker from the days when Roger Williams was still alive and a plantation was any farm or settlement -- not necessarily a pastoral prison for slaves. But in solidarity with the recent movement to get the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina Statehouse, Reverend Virgil Wood of the Ministers' Alliance of Rhode Island is trying to officially change Rhode Island's name to "Rhode Island." For Reverend Wood, "plantation" is now more Gone With the Wind than "Mayflower Compact" -- a hopelessly loaded term that just doesn't belong.

Should Rhode Island and Providence Plantations change its name to Rhode Island?

Discuss it in the Online Forums.

Rhode Island's newspaper of record, the Providence Journal, wants to keep the name the way it is and accuses Reverend Wood of being ignorant of history. The paper's editorial on the topic hoped to end the controversy:

"In Rhode Island, the word plantation never denoted slavery. The slave trade was important to the later colonial economy of Rhode Island, but slavery itself never was essential to farming here, or comparable to its institutionalization in the South…Some farms may have had a couple dozen slaves, but here the word plantation indicated not a slave economy but a farm or settlement. To eradicate the word because of later associations in another part of the country makes no sense. It panders to outright ignorance of history."

But, according to a recent book by former Brown University Professor Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860 (which was reviewed in the Providence (Plantations?) Journal), it is the paper's editorial board that is in fact guilty of "ignorance of history."

Its ignorance is not unexpected. In the Preface to Disowning Slavery, Professor Melish highlights "a virtual amnesia about slavery in New England" that is "almost as old as…slavery itself." In fact, there was slavery in New England -- in Connecticut and Rhode Island (and Providence Plantations) in particular.

The first black slaves in New England came from the West Indies in 1638, in exchange for American Indians captured in the Pequot War. At New England slavery's peak, around 1760, roughly one in four families owned slaves. Rhode Island's Narragansett Country, where most of the plantations were, was one quarter black in 1755. Melish argues -- as most historians and newspaper editors of New England do not (perhaps part of their amnesia) -- that New England's economy was dependent on slave labor.

But as the Revolution developed, the growing opposition to England's virtual enslavement of Americans necessarily fostered an examination of African slavery. Slaveholding became immoral, not because of what it did to blacks, but because of what it did to whites: murder their republican idyll with the deadly sin of dependence. Abolitionists didn't want former slaves to be citizens and didn't believe they could be (tainted as they were by their enslavement); they just wanted a virtuous free society. And they wished the cancerous institution of slavery -- and the slaves themselves -- would just go away.

Of course, this vision of the future presented New Englanders with a contradiction that was utterly irreconcilable: If they freed the slaves, they would be left with freed slaves, who were as much of a problem as slavery.

So abolitionists came up with schemes for gradual emancipation, whereby communities could maintain control over slaves and former slaves for the foreseeable future. In Rhode Island, children born to slaves after March 1, 1784 were to be freed upon reaching adulthood. But gradual emancipation only put off the problem. When a significant community of free blacks finally developed in New England, "white New Englanders had to cope with the problem of 'free blacks,'" according to Melish. So they started ascribing their degradation not to slavery (as they once had) but to "race." Former slaves couldn't be citizens not because they used to be slaves, but because they were "Negro."

Thus the roots of modern-day racism sprouted. Melish documents this beginning with the story of Lemuel Haynes. Haynes was an indentured servant who became the first ordained black minister in America in 1785 and the head of a white Congregational parish in Vermont three years later. He was able to participate in white society because he came of age shortly after the start of gradual emancipation, at a time when white New Englanders were still unsure of how to solve the paradox of free blacks. But by 1818, when Haynes had served his parish for 30 years, white New Englanders had developed a new theory of inherent black inferiority, and Lemuel Haynes was fired.

Decades passed and New Englanders discovered all sorts of ways to keep blacks out of their society. As the Civil War approached and the North was trying to define itself apart from the South, New England collectively decided to erase blacks and slavery from its history entirely. New England --and the North -- became a free society based on liberty and order. The South became despotic and licentious. Melish argues that this understanding of the coming conflict gave rise to "the myth of a historically-free, white New England" distinct from a "'Negroized'" South.

Disowning Slavery is about the long process of marginalizing the free blacks that emancipation unleashed in New England. And indeed that process continues. The notion that New England was innocent of the crime of slavery is still peddled in the Providence Journal and elsewhere. It is also still used to define the often-false difference between the North and the South.

In its defensive editorial, the Providence Journal explains that unlike "Plantations," the Confederate flag's "link to slavery is strong and real, and its use as a statement of white power and anti-integration has a long and offensive history." The implication is that racism is today, as ever, a problem of the South and not of New England. By denying that slavery and racism ever existed in their communities, New Englanders deny that it exists today. As George Orwell said, "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

The relatively academic question of whether Rhode Island's name ought to be changed to Rhode Island is one for historians that will be answered instead by politicians. But the response of the Providence Journal and others to the very idea of changing it is a much more vexing problem. Because there is ignorance of history, and then there is ignorance of ignorance of history. Candidates take heed.