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The Lark: Vol 1, Issue 3, September 2021


A Matter of Truth
An Overview by Sheila Brush

A MATTER OF TRUTH. The Struggle For African Heritage & Indigenous People Equal Rights in Providence, Rhode Island (1620-2020)

Did you know?

  • “More than 60% of the North American ships involved in the African slave trade in the 1700s were based in Rhode Island.”
  • In 1880, the RI General Assembly passed legislation that abolished the Narragansett Indian Tribe and sold off tribal land. “The law of abolishment would continue to be used against Narragansett sovereignty . . . well into the late 20th century.”
  • In the 1950s “the East Side neighborhood to the north of [Brown’s] campus – once home to a plurality of the city’s Black population – was replaced by a ... middle income urban renewal development called “University Heights,” specifically targeted towards meeting the housing needs of Brown’s growing graduate student population.” More than 400 families, together with Black businesses that had served the cohesive community, were forced to move out and were paid low prices for their properties. Faced with long-standing Federal housing loan policies that mandated segregation and often denied African Americans access to home loans, many of those former property owners were unable to buy housing in other parts of Providence.

By presenting these and many other facts, A Matter of Truth tells the story of systemic racism in Rhode Island, and particularly in Providence. It’s a “must-read” for any Rhode Islander who wants to understand the full scope and impact of systemic racism.

Researched and written by Keith W. Stokes and Theresa Guzmán Stokes and edited by W. Paul Davis, A Matter of Truth is the first part of a three-part Truth Telling, Reconciliation and Municipal Reparations Process initiated by Mayor Jorge Elorza in July of 2020. Many LLC members had the opportunity to hear the Mayor talk about this process at the LLC’s September 9th Fall Convocation. As the Mayor explained, it is designed to help Rhode Islanders comprehend the historical reality of systemic racism in our capital city and throughout our state, to have a broad community discussion about the resulting inequities that continue to this day and about the resilience of the Blacks, Indigenous People and People of Color in the face of these inequities, and to decide what actions can be taken to address those injuries.

Why is A Matter of Truth a “must-read”? First, the history it lays out can be trusted because it is grounded in well-documented fact. The Stokes’ research used more than 600 primary and secondary sources. And, for readers who want to delve more deeply into the subject, appendices provide full footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Members of the LLC Winter and Spring classes on “Racism in America” found A Matter of Truth to be an invaluable resource. Barbara Barnes and Beverly Pettine report that it was “extraordinarily helpful” as they planned their June walking tour of Benefit Street, Rediscovering a Providence Neighborhood.

Not only can the Stokes’ research be trusted, but they have also managed to synthesize 400 years of history into a readable and concise text of less than 150 pages. And throughout the publication they provide maps, illustrations and tables that help to underscore key points.

But the most important thing about A Matter of Truth for Rhode Island residents is that it presents the true story of what was done in our own state and relates not only what happened in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, but what has happened in the 20th and 21st centuries. Sometimes it is easy to think of systemic racism as actions and policies that happened elsewhere – in the South or in other cities – or that happened long ago. A Matter of Truth makes it very clear that to understand what systemic racism is and the harm and inequities it has caused that persist today, we need look no further than what happened here in Rhode Island and in part during our own lifetimes. At the same time, it celebrates the resiliency and “creative survival” of African heritage Rhode Islanders and Indigenous People. It tells the stories of the Rhode Islanders who led the struggle for equality and who deserve greater recognition.

In its closing pages, A Matter of Truth introduces the later components of the Mayor’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations process by suggesting some of the ways Rhode Island and Providence might address the continuing inequities. The history that Keith and Theresa Stokes have documented is a call for all of us to be part of that process.

There are several ways to obtain the publication.

FYI from Joan Hausrath: I just learned that Black Lives Matter Rhode Island has created an African American Innovation Center in downtown Pawtucket. They are in the process of creating an educational and technical center with an extensive library of non-fiction and fiction books written by Black authors. There is an article in the Valley Breeze (week of September 11) about the Center.

"The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze."
John Updike