As wealthy white businessmen and socialites — those depicted in the HBO drama series “The Gilded Age” — used Newport as their summertime playground in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were a number of people of African heritage establishing their own prominence in the City-by-the-Sea.
That was the crux of a talk by historian Keith Stokes, a member of the R.I. Black Heritage Society, who is a Newport native and has family ancestry in the city dating back hundreds of years. His visit on Feb. 17 was part of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport’s celebration of Black History Month.
The lecture, titled “The Gilded Age, Newport in Color,” highlighted the men and women who were involved in politics, owned businesses and helped build an active and prosperous community of people with African heritage in the decades after the emancipation of slaves in New England.
Stokes is vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group, which according to its website, is a historical consulting firm “dedicated to helping persons and institutions of color increase their knowledge and access to the light of truth of their unique American heritage.” He’s been an advisor for Rhode Island with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and served on numerous regional and national historic preservation boards.
“I’ve told our workforce several times I love reading history books, and this is a great opportunity to learn some history that probably, as you went through school — whether that was high school, through college — was probably outside of the purview of the core curriculum,” Commanding Officer Capt. Chad F. Hennings said in his opening remarks.
Stokes also is no stranger to Navy operations as he led the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process for the state of Rhode Island in 1992-93, 1995 and 2005.
The Gilded Age, Newport in Color program was created several years ago, Stokes said, as a “forerunner” to the HBO series and “we’ve been working with the production crew with this, and they’re quite excited.” Additional programs will be offered to expound on this part of history, and the subject matter will be part of the Black heritage and history curriculum taught in public schools in Rhode Island.
“Not about the Civil War, not about slavery, but about African heritage — men, women and families — that were able to thrive beyond slavery and beyond discrimination,” Stokes said.
Stokes opened his lecture by saying he was going to “provide you about 300 years of history in about 35 minutes.” It started with the slave trade during the 18th century and the role Newport played. Stokes said by 1760, roughly 22 percent of the population in the city was comprised of enslaved Africans.
“In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Newport is the most active slave-trading port in British North America,” he said.
After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, between 1777 and 1790, several New England states, including Rhode Island, enacted laws that abolished slavery in what Stokes called the “First Emancipation.” By the end of the 18th century, there were close to one million free Africans living in the northern states, clustered in eastern seaboard cities — namely Boston, Philadelphia and Newport.
As Africans found their footing in free society, communities were created. They built schools and churches, formed civic organizations and charted a path toward prosperity throughout Newport. Stokes highlighted several neighborhoods where Africans lived or owned businesses, including the Point, Historic Hill, Bellevue Avenue, Bath Road (now Memorial Boulevard) and Broadway.
“The next time you’re in Newport walking out and you can see wonderful mansions and wonderful homes and wonderful seaports, you also get to see that some of the buildings that still stand were lived in, worshiped in and worked in by people who look less like George and Martha Washington and more like myself,” Stokes said.
While Jim Crow Laws were prevalent in the south and Jim Crow traditions were still alive in the northern states, Stokes said one of the misnomers regarding Black culture during the Gilded Age was people of African heritage had sought to be part of white society.
“Let me be clear here,” he said. “The opportunities for African heritage people at that time, and even to this very day, is not integration. It’s interdependence. Their interests at that time was to establish their own recreational, educational, civic, religious, cultural activities to benefit themselves.”
The African business owners — dressmakers, restaurateurs, caterers — had many wealthy white patrons, but they had no desire to rub elbows with the elite, Stokes said.
“They weren’t doing this so they could have the benefit of taking part in the parties in the mansions, or going to the white clubs. They had no interest in that,” Stokes said. “They wanted to make money. And if we can make money from these very rich white people, we’ll take that money and put it back into building the equity of our own Black church, our own community, send our own kids to colleges. This is interdependence, not integration.”
During his presentation, Stokes highlighted the contributions of several people of African heritage who left their mark on Newport and beyond. Among them was hospitality entrepreneur George T. Downing, physician Dr. Harriet A. Rice, and Rev. Mahlon Van Horne, an ancestor of Stokes who became the first African American to serve in the R.I. General Assembly.
Downing, Rice, Van Horne and others used their money and influence to strengthen African communities, advance equal rights and tackle social justice issues, not only in New England, but also south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
“They were focusing on federal anti-lynching legislation, because at the time, that was the most significant issue impacting the Black community,” Stokes said.
Teaching these lessons in schools will benefit the young Black students of today, Stokes said.
“I want every kid of color to watch these presentations and walk away saying, ‘You know what? I want to go to the Naval Academy and be a naval officer. I want to go to Harvard University and be a physicist. I have choices because my ancestors gave me these choices,’” he said. “History is about power and privilege, and I want to provide power and privilege to kids of color, finally.”
The event was organized by David Rhodes, Division Newport’s lead of the special emphasis Black program, and Don Gomes, specialist, Equal Employment Opportunity Office
“Keith gave a prolific lecture not ever heard from that distinct perspective,” Gomes said.
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