“When people think of early African American history and the slave trade, they don’t think of New England or Newport,” says historian, Keith Stokes. “Before the American Revolution, Newport was the largest slave-trading port in British North America and about a third of the entire population of Newport were enslaved and some free Africans.” Keith’s ancestors lived and died in Newport. Their stories are still here.
“Newport is home to the oldest and largest African burying ground of its kind in the western hemisphere. It dates back to 1705 and has just under 300 surviving markers,” says Keith. Rhode Island’s extensive collection of primary documents allow Keith to work backward from the names on the cemetery markers to reconstruct their lives.
“This cemetery is an opportunity, not to memorialize the dead, but to awaken the history of early Newport and its African Americans,” says Keith. “Too often, we get so wrapped up in the institution of the slave trade, that we tend to forget about the people. I’m going to set a new course in how we interpret African history in America. Rather than institution-based, it should be people-based.
“Having a sense that you were a part of the early history of a community or a country gives you a sense of power and entitlement. Enslaved or free Africans built (Newport’s) brick market, the Redwood Library, the old colony house, Touro Synagogue… This was not slave labor, these were craftsmen. Not everyone that lived and worked in colonial America looked like George and Martha Washington.”
Keith’s TEDx Newport talk, “Stories in Stone: Newport’s African Burying Ground” reveals America’s early Africans as complex and captivating human beings. “I think we talk way too much about power and privilege. I’d rather talk about the people who advanced themselves in spite of it. Black lives matter and I’m suggesting that black history matters.” Historian, Innovator This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx