As we continue to explore the history of First U as part of the celebration of our 300th anniversary, Rev. Liz reflects on what we have been learning about First U and race in Providence and Rhode Island. Our History Committee has hired a researcher from Brown University who has brought many interesting details to light.
Setting the Stage
Today’s sermon reflects our deepening understanding of this congregation’s involvement with slavery. It is not definitive; it is merely reflective of some of the things we are learning thanks to the ongoing work of our investigators. A full report will be coming. I can’t say exactly when, because this kind of research work takes as long as it takes. But later this year there will be a comprehensive narrative made available for all of us to study and reflect upon.
That full report will address dimensions of the business of slavery in RI and in Providence, how that business affected politics and culture here, how it affected the lives of Black people in Providence both before and after the General Assembly’s enactment of a gradual abolition law in 1784. It will then focus on how our church and its members related to all of this. The report will cover what happened between this congregation’s founding in 1720 and the end of the Civil War. Much more could and should be said about how church leadership related to issues affecting Black people during and after Reconstruction and into the 20th century. Researching and interpreting those subsequent chapters in our history will require additional work and a supplementary report further down the road.
What I can offer today are mere threads, but vivid threads, in the fabric of a rich and complicated early history.
First I must share with you, in just a few brief strokes, the all-important context for this church’s involvement in the lives of enslaved people during its first century and a half. Two hugely profitable slave-produced commodities create the context. The first was commodity was sugar in the 18th century; the second was cotton in the 19th century. You all know something about the African slave trade. I expect you know less about the specific role of slave-produced sugar from the Caribbean islands, which formed the heart of Rhode Island’s involvement in the business of slavery during the early years. And I expect that most you know still less about the central role of cotton in Rhode Island’s economy during the 19th century, although when you drive around the state and see all those hulking abandoned factories with their imposing smokestacks and galleries of windows, you might guess that something big was going on here. In Fall River, too, because Fall River was part of this state until 1862, and the handsome old factories there were built by Rhode Islanders.
Rhode Island’s bottomless demand for slave-produced molasses to convert into rum for use as currency in the Triangle Trade is what produced the loud cries heard here for freedom from British rule. Strong Rhode Island-made rum, commonly known as “guinea rum,” was an especially prized currency for purchasing slaves on the west coast of Africa. Rhode Island rum had an interesting back story. Needless to say, London did not want its colonies trading with non-British suppliers of commodities, only with suppliers in other British colonies. But Rhode Island traders were notorious for trading with London’s enemies – for running their ships into French and Spanish ports in the Caribbean, delivering fresh slaves and other supplies to the sugar planters there, and bringing back the precious molasses. This determination to defy London’s regulation of its primary trade is what made little Rhode Island the “vanguard of the Revolution,” the first colony to forswear allegiance to the crown. As early as 1764, Rhode Island’s leading spokesperson for liberty, Stephen Hopkins, scolded the London Board of Trade for not understanding that the business of slavery was central to the little colony’s robust economy and thus also the source of much British revenue. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” was Hopkins’ argument in an open letter that was then widely circulated in pamphlet form.
No less a figure than John Adams admitted in 1818 that rum was a principal ingredient in the making of the American Revolution. And the idea that the united colonies’ fight against British rule was also a fight to protect the lucrative business of slavery is no longer a controversial proposition among historians who study the period. But it must also be said that the rhetoric of freedom and high ideals of the Revolution actually did create a moment of hope that Black people might also taste some of that freedom. As many as 100 Black people won their freedom during this time, and numerous white thought leaders could plainly see that slavery was fundamentally incompatible with the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
Unfortunately, this moment of aspiration was soon eclipsed, and the main reason for that eclipse was the new-found profitability of cotton manufacturing, once the cotton gin made it possible to spin and weave domestically grown cotton. And in the case of RI specifically, there was a lot of money to be made from the manufacture of a product called “negro cloth,” a coarse material used to clothe and to stigmatize the very people who were picking the cotton in the plantation South. Radical abolitionists spoke often about the pernicious and mutually enriching relationship between the “lords of the lash” down South and the “lords of the loom” up here in New England. Needless to say, the “lords of the loom” did not like that kind of talk. They didn’t like it one bit. And by 1835 there was in Providence a movement organized and led by the state’s leading manufacturers and politicians and academics to quash that kind of rhetoric and keep everyone in line: an Anti-Abolition Society that made it clear how dangerous and reckless it was to talk about ending slavery.
A Strange Kind of “Freedom” for Black Rhode Islanders
I invite us to use our moral imaginations now, as we think about what the Revolutionary era and the Federal period must have been like and felt like for the people of color who were living here. A lot of them had moved to Providence from Newport following the war for independence, on account of Newport’s economy having been basically trashed during a lengthy British occupation.
Rhode Islanders like to boast that they were the first to “free” enslaved people, by means of the 1784 gradual emancipation act. But the operative word was “gradual.” After that date, no one would be born into slavery, but those who were enslaved would remain so, and their minor children would not be fully free until reaching the age of 21. Most would either remain semi-enslaved in white households or else be consigned to the lowest-paid occupations: stevedore, common laborer, washer-woman, etc. They were completely barred from employment in the textile mills. They began forming their own churches and mutual support organizations, but they were constantly subjected to the judgmental white gaze, because the white people really couldn’t figure out what to do with the idea of free and independent Black people here in New England. White freedom had no definite meaning if Black people could also be truly free. Many leading whites thought that free Black people had no place in white society. They just didn’t fit, and they should either migrate to Africa or remove themselves to territories beyond the Mississippi River. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord, compared Black people in North America to dodoes and hoped that they would be become extinct.
For most whites, Black bodies were still essentially commodities. Whether officially free or unfree, Black people were expected to serve white needs, and the labor of Black people came at no cost or very low cost. Their unpaid labor was often “bound out” to white households or white businesses. Which is to say that if there was any danger to local government of Black people needing public relief, the local town could and would bind out the needy person to the employ of a white family or commercial enterprise. The same thing could happen if you were poor and white, but it happened far more often to Blacks, who frankly were not expected to become self-sufficient. Along with this binding out practice, and there was also the legal threat of “warning out,” whereby if you couldn’t prove your legal residence, you had no right to receive relief and no right to remain in a given town: you needed to leave. Although making up just five percent of the state’s population during the early years of the 19th century, 50 percent of the people “warned out” were Black.
In Providence, poverty was stigmatized whether you were white or Black but especially if you were Black. Black people were subject to constant surveillance, and their morality was presumed to be defective. We find many records of African Americans being punished for living in “bawdyhouses” or being drunk or otherwise disorderly. Interestingly, many of these so-called “bawdyhouses” were owned by the most respectable men in town, men like Nicholas Brown and Darius Sessions. Whites in those days did what whites in our own time still do: they kept Black people poor and then punished them for their poverty. They projected their own worst impulses and behaviors onto Black folks to ensure that the social order and their own moral superiority would remain intact. In 1822 the right of Black people to vote in Rhode Island was rescinded. It didn’t matter whether Black men met the property requirement for exercising the franchise; their right to vote was cancelled and would not be restored until 1843.
White objectification and projection also meant that Blacks in Providence, as in other New England cities, were at constant risk of white mob violence. Here that violence broke out spectacularly in 1826 and again in 1831 in what are known as the Hardscrabble and Snowtown riots. Hardscrabble and Snowtown were small Black settlements on the margins of town where Black folks were able to eke out an existence, often running small businesses including cafes and bars. There was just enough independence and just enough Black joy in these places to provoke white rage and resentment. And, sure enough, the mobs descended to trash and burn Black businesses and destroy many Black homes. The white rioters were never punished, and the judge in one of the trials – a certain Joseph Tillinghast – openly ridiculed Black demands to be treated with respect and dignity, using the ugly stereotypes to describe Black behavior. Broadsides were also printed and circulated to celebrate the destruction of these Black neighborhoods and ridicule the aspiration of Black people to a life free of white control. The condemnation of Blackness itself was in full flower in “progressive” New England.
Understanding Our Church as a Center of Power and Wealth
And where was our church in all this? During both centuries and during both major economic booms – that is, during the height of the 18th century’s Triangle Trade and also during the early 19th century’s cotton mill fever – our predecessors in this place were front and center in the business of slavery.
The land down by the wharves where our first meetinghouse stood was donated by one of the many captains whose names appear in our history. This donor, Capt. Daniel Abbott by name, was a wealthy rum distiller.
Not all of these captains and early merchants were directly involved in slaving voyages, but most were nevertheless involved in the business of slavery by way of the booming trade with the sugar islands. And it’s important to understand that this was a trickle-down trade. Other church members having other occupations would often be investors in slavery-related voyages and in rum distilling, which yielded steady and significant profits here. Our second minister – Rev. John Bass – was one such investor. Prominent early church members also had family members placed in the South and in Caribbean locations to help support their slavery-related activities during the sugar boom and later during the cotton boom. Oliver Bowen, John Clark Nightingale, and Warren Lippitt– a church member and father of future governor Henry Lippitt– were among such agents supporting their family business interests from locations in the South.
Needless to say, because this church’s early merchants and traders were so deeply into an activity that was prohibited by the mother country– that activity being smuggling molasses and distilling that molasses into “guinea rum”– many of these same merchants and traders became ardent revolutionaries. I will mention just a couple of important names, both of them church members who served in senior government positions during pre-Revolutionary times: Darius Sessions and Col. Jabez Bowen. This Jabez Bowen (there are several Jabez Bowens!) was the half-brother of the Ephraim Bowen Jr., also a church member, who participated in the famous Gaspee raid of 1772. And this Jabez Bowen was an enslaver, as were many of the Bowens and as were many others among our foremost members in the early days. I will say more about that in a moment.
Both this Jabez Bowen – who was also a Deputy Governor, a judge, and a chancellor at Brown – and his close associate Darius Sessions, holding the title of Lieutenant Governor, worked tirelessly to prevent the extradition and trial of the Providence men who rowed their long boats down to Warwick to attack and burn the customs schooner Gaspee and shoot its captain in an act of high treason. All of that history is very well known, and the people who dress up and celebrate Gaspee Days in June every year seem not to know or care that the bold attack on the British schooner was about preserving the business of slavery.
But as far as this church is concerned, Jabez Bowen and Darius Sessions used their official government positions to do something else of great significance just two years prior to the famous raid. In 1770 they got the colonial legislature to grant a charter for something called the Benevolent Congregational Society. Several of the Nightingales were also original incorporators of this society, with Samuel Nightingale Jr – or Deacon Nightingale, as he was often called – playing a central role in the Society over many decades. This Samuel became the Society’s treasurer while also serving as church deacon and as treasurer of the Town of Providence. His family business was all about slavery, primarily through rum distilling but also in other ways.
The Benevolent Congregational Society was an all-male group of powerful merchants and manufacturers who controlled all of the money for this congregation for nearly 100 years: from 1770 until 1866. The five men who made up the Society’s original executive committee, empowered to conduct important Society business were all enslavers.
It’s important for us to know about this Society because, in the words of a certain Charles M. Young, who was in charge of various church funds and endowments back in 1910 when he wrote his own history of the church, the Society functioned as a holding company, and its leaders often merged the church’s financial interests with their own business interests, investing church funds for example in the banks and insurance companies that they controlled. They also invested in a lot of land. It may surprise you to learn, for example, that the Society owned all of the land from this corner all the way back to Hope Street. They purchased it in 1794. In effect, today’s Benevolent Street was Benevolent Congregational Street for its entire length. The Society also owned land in the northern section of Benefit Street. In 1784 it built a parsonage at 93 Benefit that still stands and that still bears the name “Benevolent Congregational Society Parsonage.” The workers who put up that house were paid in rum. If you happen to stop by, you will note that the sign does not say First Congregational Church Parsonage, and that’s because the congregation didn’t own it – the Society did. The Society likewise arranged, in 1849, to purchase the large oval section at Swan Point Cemetery where our early pastors and many of our early members are now buried. That, too, was a business proposition. They sold off the plots to church members and others and reinvested the proceeds.
The Benevolent Congregational Society went out of business – literally – in 1866, again through an act of the state legislature. But during its 100-year run, you can well imagine that other folks in Providence – and some of our church members, as well – must have been wondering, What is this thing? Is it a church, or is it a commercial enterprise? And, of course, we today must ask ourselves, what does it mean that an all-male group of powerful white men controlled the money for so long – commissioning this handsome building, for example, and paying for it by auctioning off the pews to the wealthiest men in town, with many of the pew purchasers not even being covenanted church members?
That’s another thing that relates directly to the business of slavery, which in 1816, when this Meeting House was dedicated, consisted of processing the slave-produced cotton that was arriving here from the South in vast quantities, with much of it to be converted into “negro cloth.” Why was it that in Providence, the same tight-knit group of wealthy men – men with names like Sullivan Dorr and Edward Carrington and Thomas Poynton Ives and Daniel Lyman – would want to purchase the pews at this church and at all of the main churches? Because that is what they did. They purchased pews here but also at St. John’s Episcopal Church and St. Stephen’s and First Baptist and Beneficent Congregational and others. They were flaunting their wealth, obviously, but they were also exercising their social and political power. They were ensuring that nothing would be said from the pulpits or in the pews that might interfere with business or disturb the peace of the prosperous. I mentioned earlier the formation here in Providence of an Anti-Abolitionist Society. That was these same people, and its organizers included several prominent church members. The names are the same. Throughout the early 19th century and right up to the Civil War, the lords of the loom ruled the day, ruled the politics, ruled the press, and ruled the church. You didn’t want to get in their way.
This is why voices for abolition in our church were always muted, at best. In a sermon I gave in February of 2020, I mentioned that Rev. Dr. Enos Hitchcock, the most celebrated of our early ministers, expressed his distaste for slavery in private correspondence that was later published in book form. Hitchcock, who served as an army chaplain during the Revolutionary War and became wealthy through marriage, was by 1790 a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. But he would not associate himself with the abolitionists here in Rhode Island, where he was a primary spokesperson for the Federalist cause during the raging debate over whether this state should adopt the new Constitution. Was this because Rev. Hitchcock did not want to be associated with more than one cause at any one time? Or was it because did he not want to run afoul of the prominent business leaders here, whose companionship and esteem we know that he cherished? We should note that Rev. Hitchcock’s monument at Swan Point Cemetery, erected by the Benevolent Congregational Society, reads “Generous Benefactor and Pastor,” with “Pastor” appearing in the second line. Hitchcock left a considerable amount of money to the church in the form of shares in the same banks and insurance firms that Congregational Society leaders controlled.
Throughout the 19th century our church – this church – was also a center for charity work. Our own Phyllis Cole described some of this work in her terrific sermon about the women here who were influenced by Margaret Fuller. This charity work – the benevolence practiced by our predecessors – is often hard to distinguish from the exercise of social control and the performance of social superiority. In this way it complements the financial and political control exercised by the Benevolent Congregational Society.
I will mention four important 19th century charity groups: first, the Providence Female Charitable Society, was founded in 1800 as the first such organization created in this country. Elizabeth Corliss Nightingale, spouse of major enslaver and slave trader Joseph Nightingale and presiding mistress of the Nightingale mansion here on Benefit Street, played a major role in the Society’s founding. This organization existed for at least 150 years, well beyond the time when its members did any actual charity work. Membership on its board was hereditary; that is how elite it was. In its early years it hired poor women at low wages to make clothing, which was then sold to these same poor women at a reduced cost. The next big charity project was the Providence Employment Society (sometimes called the Female Employment Society), founded in 1837 and largely initiated and run by a group of prominent women from this church who called themselves the Female Benevolent Society. This is the group that Phyllis focused on when she was in this pulpit. Harriet Ware Hall, the first spouse of a long-serving minister here, was a prime mover, and this organization also had a long life. Early on they put poor people to work making “coarse cloth for a purchaser in the South.” Presumably they were working with the “negro cloth” that was used to clothe enslaved people in the South. They employed poor white women and some Black women. They paid a very low wage, and they also visited the “wretched abodes” occupied by the members of their workforce. Then there was the Providence Society for the Encouragement of Faithful Domestic Servants, incorporated in 1831. Its mission was exactly what the name suggests: controlling the behavior of the servant class. Many church members, including Henry Edes, our minister at the time, were involved in this group. In a 1832 report they expressed alarm that there were around 1200 adults in the city’s “coloured population,” but only 500 of them were in domestic service. And then finally there was a major undertaking called the Ministry-at-Large, founded in 1841 by this church in partnership with the Westminster Unitarian Church. This operation was staffed for 30 years by another minister named Edwin Stone. It provided relief and training of various kinds on the settlement house model. The Ministry-at-Large required the people it assisted to attend a chapel that still stands (in the form of a private home) at 25 Benefit Street. This ministry would not provide assistance to Roman Catholics, who in the middle of the 19th century were widely viewed as a threat to good order.
All of these societies assumed that the primary answer to poverty was personal discipline, scrupulous thrift, and strict morality. As Phyllis Cole noted, and as I noted in my own sermon on the ministers’ wives, the leaders of the Employment Society did indeed critique the low pay that industrial workers were receiving. But the people setting those low labor rates were often their husbands and fathers. And in regard to the poor Black people of this city, they continued the tradition of assuming the worst in regard to the morals and manners of this segment of the population. They were not alone in taking this view or in seeking to police the morals of lower-class cohorts. There were very similar operations in all major East Coast cities, not to mention in England, where very rapid industrialization was creating widespread misery.
The Black Lives in Our Midst
This is the most difficult topic for us to address, in part because it’s so very hard to get inside the heads of the people who were enslaved and also held in various states of unfreedom by our congregational forebears.
I mentioned in my 2020 sermon that an enslaved person named Anna Bowen was baptized by Joseph Cotton, an early church minister, on Christmas Day in 1742. The headstone of Anna Bowen may be found in the Newman Congregational Church graveyard in East Providence. The inscription on this headstone, which is broken and badly deteriorated, is extremely difficult to read. The closest we can get– from an account found in the RI Cemetery Database – reads as follows:
“A Negro Servant to Col. Jabez Bowen.” “Aged about 80 years.” “Thou a good master I was a good slave, I now rest from labor & sleep in my grave”
We know that Anna Bowen did not write this inscription; her Bowen enslavers did, and these enslavers no doubt also sponsored her for baptism. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, white enslavers and white heads of households believed that it was their Christian duty to provide baptism and church membership for enslaved and indentured people who sought it – and sometimes for those who did not. Church membership and Christian freedom was never to be confused, however, with social equality and actual freedom.
Gravestone inscriptions for enslaved or formerly enslaved persons are telling in regard to who has power and who has consent. For example, the stone for Caesar Hitchcock, who is buried in the Pastor’s Rest section of our church grounds at Swan Point, reads as follows:
To the memory of Caesar Hitchcock
Man of color
On the 10th. Day of Sept.
Aged about 65 years
The religious example and pious instructions that he received in the family of the late Dr. Enos Hitchcock, with whom he lived many years, had an abiding influence upon him through life and rendered him an acceptable member of the Christian Church. In all his course he exhibited an exemplary faithfulness, integrity, and uprightness surpassed by none.
Notice the condescending language used here. The inscription says that it was only the benign influence of the much-honored minister, his former owner, that allowed Caesar to become an “acceptable member” of the church. Inscriptions like this say more about the enslaver than about the enslaved. I wish we could hear Caesar’s own voice.
In my sermon of two years ago, I mentioned that Enos Hitchcock left one share of bank stock to Caesar, whom he had purchased at the slave market in Newport when Caesar was just a boy of 11. Caesar is identified in Enos Hitchcock’s will as “my faithful Blackman Caesar.” Rev. Hitchcock’s will states that he “caused Caesar to be manumitted,” but we have not been able to find any record indicating when that manumission might have happened. Caesar’s name does not appear in census records or in city directories as a head of household, although he did have some property that he left to his friends when he died.
And about that bequest from Rev. Hitchcock: How generous was it, really? Caesar had to apply to the church treasurer twice a year in order to secure small cash payments from his share of bank stock, which was held in trust for him. When he received these payments he signed the receipts with an “X,” indicating that Dr. Hitchcock, who was known publicly as an advocate for education, never taught Caesar to read or write. His was a complicated benevolence, to say the least.
Enos Hitchcock was not the only Revolutionary era white leader who was given to memorializing faithful Black servants. Col. Seth Wheaton, a member of this church, had two stones erected at the North Burial Ground to remember both Charles Haskell, a slave who accompanied Col. Wheaton during his wartime service, and Lucy Haskell, the spouse of Charles Haskell. Lucy Haskell’s inscription reads as follows:
In memory of Lucy Haskell, wife of Mr. Charles Haskell, and daughter of Pero and Phillis Brown, she died in May 1812, aged 32 years.
A professed disciple of Jesus Christ she lived in the practice of his precepts and died in Hope of reaping the rewards of grace in his kingdom where every complection [sic] will unite in praising him who has washed their robes and made them white in his own Blood.
This inscription is actually not quite as racist as it sounds. The trope about being washed “whiter than snow” through the blood of Christ was very common in the church culture of the time and is still echoed in evangelical Christian circles today. And the idea that people of every complexion will be united in paradise is actually quite touching in its way. And I have no doubt that the white Wheatons cherished the Black Haskells in their own way. The problem here is the use of the future tense: unity in the future world, but strict social separation and racial subjugation in this world.
Not everyone enslaved by members of this church was lucky enough to get a headstone. Nimble Nightingale, enslaved by the Joseph and Elizabeth Nightingale – the power couple who built that sumptuous mansion just down the street from us – was “admitted to communion” here in January of 1776. But Nimble Nightingale, who is also recorded as being the slave of the trading firm of Clark & Nightingale, was given a pauper’s burial by the Town of Providence when he died in 1826 at the age of around 66 years. We do know from official town records that Nimble Nightingale was manumitted, along with Bristol Nightingale, and we know this because slave owners were required to appear and testify that the people they intended to free would not become a burden to the town. When he died, however, Nimble Nightingale was still identified as a “servant” to John Innis Clark. He was remembered in the newspaper notices as a godly man, well respected in this town. I wish we knew more about him and more about he was thinking and feeling both before and after his manumission, when he still could not escape the orbit of Clark & Nightingale.
In the spirit of “say their names,” I want to call the roll of other persons enslaved by the Nightingale family, which was by all measures the wealthiest and most influential family belonging to this church in its early days:
There were Nimble Nightingale’s two spouses: Catherine and Candace. And Cudge Nightingale. And Joseph Nightingale, named for his enslaver. And Joshua Nightingale, Nancy Nightingale, and Polly Nightingale. I already mentioned Bristol Nightingale; Bristol’s son Sam was baptized by this church. And there were also Bristol Nightingale, Jr., and Cato Nightingale, and Quam Nightingale , who apparently was able to purchase his freedom from the firm of Clark & Nightingale. And finally there was Dorcas Nightingale, identified as “servant girl” to the long-serving deacon (and church treasurer and town treasurer) Samuel Nightingale Jr. Dorcas Nightingale was manumitted in 1796.
I want also to say the names of some of the many enslaved Bowens, in particular the names of the enslaved people whose lives were connected to this church and its members.
In 1782, Benjamin Bowen – a church member – gave freedom and their clothing to four “servants” named in his will. Their names were Sylvia, Flora, Pompey, and Quam. In 1784 Col. Jabez Bowen manumitted a slave named Prince, but Prince was required to go to Georgia and there serve Jabez’s brother Oliver for a certain amount of time before the manumission would become effective.
Other Bowens enslaved by Col. Jabez Bowen include a family of seven led by Primus and Bess Bowen, two of whose children were baptized by the church in 1785. Their five children were named Judah (or possibly Judith – the name is hard to make out in a handwritten record), Primus Jr., Jane, Sylvia, and Isaac. All of the members of this family were also manumitted by Col. Bowen, although the dates are unclear.
And finally, I want to say the names of some of the people of color who were employed by this church in various capacities – as sextons, as cleaners, and as cemetery workers. I will save one of those names for special attention, because his is indeed a most remarkable story. But among others who served this church, let us remember these names: William Caesar (whitewashing, 1805); Prince Joles (worked at the parsonage, 1807); Peter Perry (sexton 1831-32 and 1836); Robert R. Jones (sexton, 1833); Samuel and Thomas Proud (they removed bones from an old cemetery in 1810); Prince Brown (also a cemetery laborer, 1848); Mary Martin (recorded as a vestry cleaner, 1838); and John Church (sexton, 1860s).
The Remarkable Story of Daniel N. Morse
I said I was saving the story of one of our church sextons for last, and that is because this man was so much more than a sexton, even though he is remembered in our church chronicles merely as “Black Dan.”
Daniel Nelson Morse was a force of nature. He was a complex and multi-skilled character who had a hand in a wide variety of organizations and enterprises. We know he was born in the South but we don’t know for certain that he was enslaved. We have found no evidence to support the sentimental claim made by one memoirist in 1945 that our white church members shielded Mr. Morse from slave catchers.
Daniel Morse came to Providence in 1837, which is when he first appears in the record as a sexton here. We know that he was still serving in this role in 1853. In the 1860 census, his job is listed as sexton, but we think that he must have been saving up, because by 1861 he is listed as a grocer who operates a store adjacent to his family home on Meeting Street. Also, at around this time, the sexton job here was transferred to the John Church whom I mentioned earlier. Church was a friend of Daniel’s and was named as one of the estate trustees in Daniel’s will.
Daniel Morse’s spouse, Phebe Ann, and son Daniel Jr. lived with Daniel in their Meeting Street home. In 1865, the family took in Susan Jarvis, a young lady who had been orphaned.
Phebe Ann Morse has her own fascinating story. Born Phebe Ann Phillips in North Kingston, her parents were both enslaved. Her father was manumitted 1789, and he was able to save enough money to purchase the freedom of Phebe’s mother. Phebe Ann Phillips and her brother, John Phillips, were raised as free people but must have felt the heavy weight of their parents experience as they pushed back against the slavery system.
We are still digging, but the records we have found show Daniel Morse to have been very actively involved in anti-slavery causes. He helped to incorporate the Second African Methodist Episcopal Church in Providence, now known as Bethel AME, our partner church on Rochambeau Avenue. He did significant work in the Anti-Slavery Society. He participated in the annual August 1 celebrations marking Emancipation Day in the West Indies. And upon his death in 1870, he left behind an interesting will that reveals the kind of person he was. The will shows that Daniel Morse was a person of substance in every way.
His will names three friends as trustees and stipulates that there must always be three trustees to manage the estate. They are to pay all rents, profits, and income on the estate to his widow Phebe during her lifetime; they are to pay $200 to Phebe’s niece and $100 to Morse’s friend, Daniel M. Hall. They must also pay $400 annually to Morse’s son during the son’s lifetime, and provision must also be made for the son’s surviving wife and children. But when no family members remain, the trustees are to transfer the estate to the AME church that Daniel had helped to organize, so long as the church retains at least 10 members. And should the church be dissolved or fail to retain 10 members, the remaining estate must go to Wilberforce University in Ohio, an institution created in 1863 by AME Bishop Daniel Payne to honor English abolitionist William Wilberforce.
You may know that Wilberforce is still going strong and is still affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. It enjoys the distinction of having been created first among what we today recognize as the HBCUs – the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And what does it say about Daniel Morse that he was aware of and supportive of this beacon of freedom and symbol of abolitionism from the moment of its creation?
Can our church – this church – take any credit from the remarkable life and accomplishments of Daniel Nelson Morse? I don’t think we really can. But we can celebrate that he was among us for almost 25 years and that he was able to leverage his position here to establish himself as a savvy businessman and effective activist in a very challenging environment. And we can certainly rejoice with our friends at Bethel, knowing that we have a kind of shared history in the person of the Amazing Mr. Morse.
I wish, and I am sure we all wish, that in looking at our first 150 years we could point to some genuine heroes and heroines among the white people. I wish we had had white leaders who swam bravely against the tide of the times. I wish we could number among our forebears a Samuel Hopkins or a Sarah Osborn or an Elizabeth Buffum Chace, all of them white Rhode Islanders who stuck their necks out for the sake of truth and justice around the evils of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. We have looked, and we have looked hard, but I’m afraid such fearless white leaders just aren’t there in our annals.
Our story, frankly, is a lot like the story of our near neighbor here on College Hill, an institution that in 1804 was endowed by and named for the leading 18th century Providence family involved in the business of slavery and that was controlled for many decades by powerful lords of the loom.
But our story isn’t over. I gave you just a few threads in our complicated history, but the fabric is still being woven. Our future as a community of faith and hope is wide open. And the point for those of us who are white in this era is that we do not need to behave like those 19th-century New England whites who, in the scornful words of Frederick Douglass, would always protest, “But what have we to do with slavery?”
Like Brown University and like the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, we have within ourselves the capacity to stop being diligent about forgetting and to start being diligent about remembering. And from that faithful remembering, and in particular from listening for the voices of those who were enslaved and stigmatized and marginalized – and whose descendants are still stigmatized and marginalized today – we can create a fourth century marked by significant service and redemptive action that our successors in this place will someday be able to truly honor and celebrate.