The presence of African-Americans looms long and large over the history of Rhode Island. Early in its establishment as an English colony in the 1630s, the colonial legislature promulgated a law that prohibited "the common course practiced among Englishmen to buy Negroes" and sought to prevent "such practice among us" (1652).
As it turned out, however, this law could not override the influence of the colony's limited natural resources and its advantageous maritime location. By the end of the seventeenth century, these conditions had induced some of the colony's inhabitants to seek their fortunes by turning to the lucrative trans-Atlantic trade in African "negroes", while other individuals in the colony who could afford it purchased and kept imported slaves for their own households. These events comprised a long chapter in the history of the African-American experience in Rhode Island, but it was not to be the final one in that history. As events unfolded, by the middle of the nineteenth century, it had become completely unlawful to own slaves in Rhode Island.
The digitized records made available here hold some of the stories that make up this history. The records are drawn from the legislative Acts and Resolves, Petitions to the General Assembly, and the correspondence of Rhode Island's Governors. These records represent a selection from a larger volume of documentation held by the Rhode Island State Archives covering the experiences of African-Americans in Rhode Island.
In this selection one encounters individuals who owned slaves and others engaged in the slave trade. One also finds documentation from public officials concerning the economic, military, moral, and social ramifications of the presence of African-Americans in Rhode Island. Also included are records of Rhode Islanders who protested against the importation of "negroes" and who argued against the institution of slavery, both in Rhode Island and elsewhere in the nation. Especially in the petitions, one can catch glimpses of African-Americans themselves in action - in moments of defiance of their masters, as well as when they took active measures in their own behalf to gain equal rights.