Letter: In early Warren, Black Lives Did Not Matter

Posted 8/5/20

To the editor:

When I read General Valente’s letter to the Warren Town Council, published on the 23rd of July, I saw we were of opposite opinions on the raising of the Black Lives Matter …

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Letter: In early Warren, Black Lives Did Not Matter

Posted

To the editor:

When I read General Valente’s letter to the Warren Town Council, published on the 23rd of July, I saw we were of opposite opinions on the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag. I have worked with him and appreciate all the time and effort he has put into his volunteer work for Warren. When I got halfway through his letter and reached the sentence “Many of you are recent citizens of Warren, and probably have no sense of our history over the slavery issue,” and then went on to cite the town’s participation in the Civil War, I was surprised that he did not mention our earlier history since we have discussed it and so I decided to write.  I am one of those recent citizens of Warren, having chosen it as my home five years ago.  And as to the history of slavery, I have spent the last four years researching that “issue” as the founder and co-chair of the Warren Middle Passage Project.

The slave trade and enslavement in Warren were an integral part of the town’s commerce and life from its founding until the last enslaved person was freed early in the 19th century. In 1755, 98 African Americans were enslaved in Warren. The first local record of enslavement is in the minutes of the third town meeting in 1747 in which the inventory of an estate lists “One Negro woman.” No name, no further description, no explanation of her fate.  Her Black Life did not Matter except for the 50 pounds she was worth.

In the 1700s, Warren shipwrights built slave ships for traders in Newport and Bristol. Beginning in 1789, Warren residents launched their first illegal slave voyage.  Eventually, Warren ships would make at least 30 voyages, causing the death of 500 and the enslavement of 2,400, not to mention the eventual enslavement of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren for decades to come.  Their Black Lives Did Not Matter. 

Many residents of the town profited from their misery, including town councilmen, Grand Jury members, Justices of the Peace and the Town Postmaster.  Streets were named after these men and houses still standing today were built with slave trade money.  There was no outcry against this inhumane activity, the men of Warren do not appear on any abolitionist petitions because those Black Lives Did Not Matter.

I will end this “issue of slavery” with the history of six African American men enslaved (and some born) in Warren—Hampton Barton, Caesar Cole, Prince Child, Warren Mason, Bristol Miller and Bristol Luther.  When the quota for Warren men to serve in the Continental Army came up short, the majority for three years or more. (The local militia, which did not allow black men, was usually for months, often without leaving Warren.) Often paid less and given the fewest supplies and equipment, most of these men did not  survive.  Mason and Barton returned to Warren, but the other four died—Cole at Valley Forge, Miller on the eve of the Battle of Rhode Island, Child at the Battle of Pines Bridge and Luther after the Battle of Yorktown.  Through the annals of history, they’ve been forgotten, their sacrifice never spoken of in classrooms or on military holidays, their names missing from the Veterans Honor Roll.  Their Black Lives Did Not Matter.

The Warren Town Council chose this moment to raise the Black Lives Matter flag to say clearly that Black Lives Do Matter and to begin to discuss how the Town could become more just and more welcoming.  As the late James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 

Pat Mues

Broad Street

Ms. Mues is the founder and co-chair of the Warren Middle Passage Project.

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