The Newport Historical Society (NHS) unveiled its latest initiative Thursday, “Voices from the NHS Archives,” marking a significant milestone in the organization’s commitment to inclusivity and historical accuracy. This extensive research project, developed over four years, delves into Newport’s historical records to spotlight the often overlooked experiences of Black and Indigenous communities.
The digital tool, a first-of-its-kind in Rhode Island, emerges from meticulous examination and analysis of 4,000 church records, business papers, ship logs, and more housed in the NHS archives. Executive Director Rebecca Bertrand expressed the motivation behind the project, stating, “Traditional histories of Newport have centered on the white and the powerful. Voices from the NHS Archives is an effort to increase access to the vibrant stories and experiences of people of color in Newport.”
Supported by a grant from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation and inspired by the model of Enslaved.org: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade, the project provides highly searchable digital records. These records allow users to explore the lives, stories, and personal relationships documented within the NHS collection.
Professor Walter Hawthorne, co-principal investigator of Enslaved.org, praised the initiative, saying, “Voices from the NHS Archives preserves and makes public information about the lives of people who have for too long been overlooked in the telling of history.” He emphasized the significance of the project for professional historians, educators, genealogists, and anyone eager to broaden their understanding of the role of people of African and Indigenous descent in shaping history.
The project is an ongoing effort, with continuous digitization, cataloging, and public posting of documents. The NHS hopes to make these valuable records accessible to historians, teachers, visitors, and anyone curious about Newport County’s community.
To enhance accessibility, users can employ various filters, including race and gender, occupation and freedom status, and life events reflected in the documentary record. Douglas Newhouse, president of the NHS Board of Directors, expressed optimism about the project’s long-term impact, stating, “We hope this database will be an invaluable tool for people for generations to come.”
In addition to the digital archive, the NHS curated over 15 stories of individuals who lived during the era of slavery in Newport. Five of these stories will be featured in the upcoming exhibit, “A Name, A Voice, A Life: The Black Newporters of the 17th-19th Centuries,” scheduled to open in May 2024 at the NHS’ Richard I. Burnham Resource Center on Touro Street. This complementary exhibit aims to provide a more immersive experience for those interested in delving deeper into Newport’s rich historical tapestry.
To learn more about Newport Historical Society’s collections, events, and programming, visit www.NewportHistory.org.
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