Innovation Ecosystem

Parsing the racial divide in Rhode Island

The special election for Ward Three City Councilor [which was won by Nirva LaFortune] offered a history lesson in how race riots in 1824 and 1831 created a push for a city charter in Providence

Photo by Richard Asinof

A bronze plaque located nearby the Olney Street Baptist Church, commemorating the Snow Town race riot in 1831, which led to the creation of Providence's first city charter.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/29/20
Two years ago, the special election to choose a replacement for recalled Providence City Councilor Kevin Jackson offered an opportunity to explore the roots of racial conflict in Providence and change the narrative around diversity and gentrification. Two years later, the story reverberates as Rhode Island begins a reckoning with its relationship to slavery and virulent racism.
Is it still possible for CommerceRI, working with URI, to use the remaining money from the Innovation Campus bond to invest in creating an innovation campus in the Mount Hope neighborhood? How will the Turnaround Plan for the Providence Public Schools reflect the educational needs defined by neighborhoods such as Mount Hope? What does it mean to be an engaged member of a neighborhood in the digital world we live in? How can the structural violence of economic and health disparities be better understood through an understanding of the history of racial violence and riots in Providence?
The underlying issues around health disparities, made visible by the way that the coronavirus pandemic swept through Rhode Island, putting people of color at greater risk for infection and death, still need to be addressed in fundamental ways in our health care, our education and our economic systems.
It is not just about housing, but about how lead poisoning and environmental hazards related to asthma are addressed, which become key factors in chronic school absenteeism and poor educational attainment. Any turnaround plan that does not address these fundamental issues of disparity will be a failure. There is a direct correlation between housing and systemic racism in Rhode Island.
It is not just about expanding primary care, but about measuring levels of stress, what some call toxic stress, related to what physicians and health professionals call allostatic load. It is not just about improved screening and increased community health workers or more integrated behavioral health services within primary care practices, but developing the metrics and the treatments for stress-related disorders. There is a direct correlation between economic disparities and racism and toxic stress and many chronic diseases.
It is not just about battling substance use disorders and addiction, but changing the way that “pain” is managed. It is inexcusable that questions around pain are still being asked as a fifth vital sign. What is the algorithm being used by health care delivery systems around “empathy?”

Editor’s Note: Two years ago, ConvergenceRI published this story, exploring the racial divide in Rhode Island, using the vehicle of the special election for Ward Three City Councilor in Providence as the opportunity for history lesson in how race riots in 1824 and again in 1831 created the push for a city charter in Providence.

When the story was first published on June 19, 2017, it attracted scant attention. It was “ahead of the curve.” Now, it seems even more relevant, in the wake of continuing “Black Lives Matter” protests and the efforts to eliminate “plantations” from the official name of Rhode Island on all documents.

Indeed, the news conference by Gov. Gina Raimondo on Monday, June 22, at Billy Taylor Park, to announce the vision for a “more equitable Rhode Island,” was held a few hundred yards from the marker featured atop the original story, “Olney Street Riot 1831.”

The story had ended with a quote by Joanne Pope Melish, in her introduction to
The Life of William J. Brown, A Diary of a Free Black Man. Brown, who was born in 1814 and died in 1885, completed his autobiography in 1883. In the book, Brown, who was the son and grandson of slaves, whose mother was descended from the Narragansett tribe, details his life.

Melish wrote that Brown’s diary offers: “A vivid picture of a New England white society reluctantly disentangling from slavery, clinging to habits of mind formed in its context, and refashioning its basic arguments into a new form of bondage – the virulent racism that is slavery’s equal twin.”

The history of Rhode Island, much like that of America, has always been enmeshed with slavery and racism. What has changed in the last two years is that we have arrived at a time of reckoning, a new consciousness of understanding, revealed to us by the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic, when our elected leaders may be able to listen to the story with new comprehension, particularly as we approach the celebration of the nation’s independence on July 4.

PROVIDENCE – If real life were more like a movie, or a podcast, the upcoming special primary election on July 12 following the recall of Providence City Councilor Kevin Jackson might be portrayed in a series of vignettes about Mount Hope and its nearby neighborhoods, telling the underlying tales of racial conflict, corruption, development and disruption, channeling playwright August Wilson and his plays depicting the devolution of Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood in the 20th century.

As with “Crimetown,” such a docudrama would capture the changes to what one former resident of Mount Hope has called “the West Bank” of Providence, where what was once a predominantly African American neighborhood is now being broken up into new settlements, a conflicting tale with roots going back two centuries.

The narrative might begin with a pastiche borrowed from the interactive video game, “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” with an inquiring reporter, say WPRI’s Dan McGowan [who now works for The Boston Globe], asking residents on the street, searching for answers to the geography question: where is Mount Hope? Clues and glimpses pop up everywhere in plain sight.

In the background, cue the first song in the soundtrack, “Once in a Lifetime,” by The Talking Heads: “You may ask yourself/How did I get here?”[See link below to YouTube video, “Once in a Lifetime.”]

The shoppers thronging the Whole Foods Market on North Main Street, soon to become a bricks-and-mortar outpost in Amazon’s ever-expanding business empire, which purchased the food chain for $13.7 billion on June 16, may not even know that they are in Mount Hope.

Or, that the shopping center where they were doing their grocery shopping had been at the center of what was known as the Lippitt Hill Redevelopment, which “resulted in the demolition of a large portion of dilapidated low-income housing in the southern portion of Mount Hope,” according to The Providence Plan, as quoted in a story in The Providence Journal.

[The Providence Plan is now no more, its components having been dispersed to other institutional settings across the state, a story for another day.]

Left out of that description of urban renewal was the human story: the fact that some 500 black families were pushed out to make way for the shopping center and the University Heights housing project, according to oral historian Ray Rickman, the executive director of Stages of Freedom.

Or that 10 percent of the stores in that shopping center were supposed to be owned and run by minority business owners, according to Taino J. Palermo, program director of the Community Development & Healthy Communities at Roger Williams University. It is a condition of the urban renewal plan that has been long forgotten, according to Palermo.

An un-debate, an un-conversation
On June 15, three neighborhood associations – Mount Hope, Summit and Observatory – hosted what they billed as an “Un-Debate” at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School on Camp Street.

The format of the gathering was to have residents of Ward Three have an opportunity to speak and voice their concerns to the candidates who are running in the special election for the Providence City Council seat that was vacated when former City Councilor Jackson was recalled.

[Jackson, who had first been elected in 1994, and who had been the longest serving member of the Providence City Council, had been indicted on charges that he allegedly made personal use of campaign cash and had allegedly embezzled $127,000 from a nonprofit youth sports group he had founded.

Jackson overwhelmingly lost the recall election, with more than 90 percent of the voters opposing him. Still, many of Jackson’s supporters saw him as a voice for the historically diverse community.

Marie McLeod, who grew up in Jackson’s ward, told a reporter from Rhode Island Public Radio [now known as The Public’s Radio] that she thought gentrification is pushing people of color out of the neighborhoods. “At one time, Camp Street was all black, now it’s becoming all white,” said McLeod, in an interview.

In turn, when asked, after he lost the vote, by the public radio reporter what he hoped to see in a new councilor, Jackson said he hoped they would protect the Third Ward neighborhoods from pricing out lower-income residents.]

Four of the six candidates that are running “listened” as more than 100 residents asked questions, with Mike Ritz of Leadership Rhode Island and Angela Ankoma, a member of the Leadership Rhode Island board, holding onto the microphones. As Ritz made clear in his introduction for the evening, he and Ankoma “owned” the microphones, and they would not relinquish them.

What emerged was a kind of un-conversation, where residents talked not so much with each other but past each other, raising a slew of issues: racial divisions, safety from street violence, the need for more affordable housing, gentrification, summer jobs for young people, the lack of political clout, and improving the physical conditions of schools.

The one surprising issue that everyone in the audience seemed to agree upon was the need to improve the sidewalks; when asked by Ritz how important the issue of sidewalks were, nearly every person of the more than 100 residents in the school auditorium raised their hands.

The high-minded attempt at civic engagement by controlling the microphone and keeping the residents from directly engaging and arguing with each other may get high marks, in certain quarters, as a way to distill the issues and channel them into the electoral process.

[A second event, an actual debate, is scheduled to be held on Tuesday, June 27, with WPRI’s Ted Nesi serving as the moderator, with the candidates responding to questions that were developed as part of the un-debate.]

The missing context
But, what seemed to be missing from the un-conversation, ConvergenceRI found, was a more intrinsic dialogue: Where do the boundaries of a neighborhood begin and end? Do residents see themselves as members of that neighborhood? How is “membership” defined? How much does an evolving history of a neighborhood make a difference in the pendulum swings of electoral politics? How do the residents who live in communities being redeveloped not become displaced, pushed out by higher rents and higher home prices? Do residents still talk with their neighbors in person, or greet them on the street? What is an engaged community in the digital age we live in?

The river running underneath all that missing context, sometimes voiced but mostly left unspoken, is a profound racial divide, one that has riven Providence since it first became a city: how does race still define and divide Providence in the 21st century?

And, the palpable anger in the voices of many in the crowd on June 14, who felt that they were being pushed out of their homes where they and their families had lived for generations, victims of gentrification, unequal opportunities and economic marginalization.

The race riots that made Providence a city
Less than 100 yards from the Martin Luther King, Jr., elementary school, the site of the “un-conversation,” a small commemorative bronze marker, almost hidden in the lawn near the Olney Street Baptist Church, marks the spot of four days of a race riot in 1831, what was called the Snow Town Riot, in which mobs of whites attacked the homes of black residents.

The militia had to be called out by then Gov. James Fenner to subdue the rioters, resulting in four rioters being killed. The Snow Town riot became the catalyst to enact the first Providence city charter, and with it, stronger police powers.

Seven years earlier, in 1824, a similar race riot had occurred, what was called the Hard Scrabble Riot, in which hundreds of whites had attacked blacks and more than 20 homes, near where the State House currently resides. The flashpoint was that a black man refused to get off the sidewalk when approached by some whites.

Hard Scrabble and Snow Town were predominately African American neighborhoods where free blacks and poor whites lived in the early 1800s. The population of fast-growing port town of Providence in 1830 was about 17,000 – with some 1,000 freemen who met property qualifications to vote in town meetings, according to a history of Providence and the Snow Town Riot written by John Crouch.

In turn, there were some 1,400 blacks living in Providence in 1830, with many being recent arrivals from South County, following the abolition of slavery in Rhode Island in 1807, according to Crouch.

Hard Scrabble and Snow Town were diverse neighborhoods in the north end of Providence, on the outskirts, where many of the free blacks and poor working whites resided, drawn by the abundance of cheap land and rents. It was also a place where barrooms, brothels and dance halls predominated, serving the sailors regularly coming into port.

While rioters in 1824 had been acquitted and congratulated, according to Crouch, in 1831 the violence precipitated a change in government. “A growing majority of voters decided to give up their traditional form of government for one that would efficiently expel the idle and disorderly and prevent riots,” Crouch wrote.

A competing narrative
Another way to look at the evolution of the Mount Hope community today and the surrounding neighborhoods that make up Ward Three is to view it as an evolving laboratory of diversity, a nodal point in the collision of the economic, cultural, racial, and political forces that are now at play within the Creative Capital.

As in other parts of Providence, in the West End, in Olneyville and in South Providence, the question is how can you promote the redevelopment of neighborhoods and attract new opportunities for job creation while not forcing the existing residents to be pushed out of their homes.

On June 14, SWAP held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of a mixed used building at 841 Broad St., part of its long-term effort to “Revitalize SouthSide.”

The elected officials and community leaders who gathered for the event included Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, State Sen. Harold Metts, Providence City Councilor Luis Aponte [who later resigned], Barbara Fields, the executive director of Rhode Island Housing [who became the president and CEO of the Greater Worcester Community Foundation], Jeanne Cola, the executive director of LISC Rhode Island, as well as two bankers, Robin Gallagher, senior vice president of Commercial Real Estate at Webster Bank, and Andrew Deluski, vice president at BankRI.

Metts’ message was clear: “You are who you hang with,” he said. In terms of diversity, Metts continued, “SWAP doesn’t hide or run away from it; they embrace it.”

“We need more hope,” calling the 841 Broad St. development and the work of SWAP “the hope of a neighborhood,” Metts continued: “I tell the neighbors, ‘This is my home.’”

Aponte was equally direct in addressing what he saw as the importance of embracing the diversity of South Providence, where he said you could explore Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and all of Latin America, all the while staying in Providence.

The success of Providence as a city, Aponte continued, depends on embracing “our diversity.”

Fields talked about the role of affordable housing as an engine of the innovation economy, saying it was about investing in building sustainable neighborhoods.

An innovation campus of diversity
Recently, when ConvergenceRI interviewed Commerce RI’s Stefan Pryor, Pryor talked about plans to create a new innovation campus, or campuses, in partnership with the University of Rhode Island.

One of the ideas behind the concept, Pryor explained “is to create physical nodes, where innovation can occur. What does that mean? Places where scholars from institutions, practitioners from medical centers, and business people can collide and collaborate.”

Could Mount Hope serve as a new innovation campus focused on diversity, one that is focused on creating an affordable, sustainable neighborhood that allows residents to age in place, with a focus on entrepreneurial activity that recognizes the need for a different kind of housing and transportation network?

Such a new innovation campus could create neighborhoods that promote intergenerational connections, as well as mentoring projects that connect older and younger residents. Such a new innovation campus could also involve Brown University and Miriam Hospital as partners, as well as The Providence Center and some of the nearby nursing homes and assisted care facilities, and perhaps even Whole Foods as an inclusive, summer workforce training site, underwritten by Amazon with a focus on digital technology.

The innovation campus hub could fit well within the parameters of URI’s Academic Health Collaborative to build healthier communities throughout Rhode Island and to strengthen the state’s public health workforce. Despite the proliferation of nearby health care delivery facilities, such an innovation campus could also develop its own neighborhood health station, committed to the needs of the residents living in the community.

In addition, Mount Hope and its surrounding neighborhoods are one of the likely places where many of the new workers being recruited to be part of the relocations of Johnson & Johnson, Virgin Pulse and GE divisions may choose to live. Why not make them participants in an inclusive, diverse neighborhood, in which they have connections to the people who live there?

Oral history project
On Thursday, June 29, 2017, from 6 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. at the Rochambeau Library on Hope Street, Stages of Freedom conducted an oral history session, under the direction of Ray Rickman, focused on engaging with former residents of the Lippitt Hill [University Heights] neighborhood to create an oral history.

As part of the effort, Rickman told ConvergenceRI that he planned to distribute copies of The Life of William J. Brown, A Diary of a Free Black Man. Brown, who was born in 1814 and died in 1885, completed his autobiography in 1883.

The book, in which Brown, the son and grandson of slaves, whose mother was descended from the Narragansett tribe, offers what Joanne Pope Melish in her introduction called: “a vivid picture of a New England white society reluctantly disentangling from slavery, clinging to habits of mind formed in its context, and refashioning its basic arguments into a new form of bondage – the virulent racism that is slavery’s equal twin.”


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