The latest turn in Rhode Island's complicated dialogue with its slaveholding past: a yearlong project encouraging locals to read a memoir by the son of a freed slave.
Published in 1883, The Life of William J. Brown of Providence R.I., With Personal Recollections of Incidents in Rhode Island is a straightforward account penned three years before the writer's death at age 71. The book was republished in 1971, and a paperback was issued in 2006. (Copies are available online at archive.org.)
A shoemaker and preacher at a prominent church, Brown knew and wrote about the white elites of his time. His grandfather was brought to Rhode Island on a slave ship owned by the Brown family, whose name graces the state's best-known university, and his father was freed by the abolitionist in that famous clan — Moses Brown.
The social atmosphere of the period comes across vividly in the book. Brown writes: "At that time the colored people had little or no protection. It was thought a disgrace to plead a colored man's cause, or aid in getting his rights as a citizen, or to teach their children in schools." He continues: "It was considered such a disgrace for white men to teach colored schools that they would be greatly offended if the colored children bowed or spoke to them on the street."
When he was 10, Brown witnessed a race riot in the Hardscrabble neighborhood, which resulted in some 20 black homes being torn apart. "Mobs were also the order of the day," he writes, "and the poor colored people were the sufferers."
Libraries and book clubs are being asked to put the volume on their reading lists, and there will be lectures scheduled, funded by the Rhode Island Council on the Humanities. Former state representative Ray Rickman, who with his partner Robb Dimmick has organized this project, plans to lead periodic tours of locations that figured in Brown's life. The most important tours, he says, will be with teachers, to encourage them to familiarize students with the man and his era.
While it's not certain, many historians believe that Brown wrote the memoir himself, having been schooled until age 20, and so does Rickman.
"As you know, 99 percent of the slave narratives were written by progressive whites," he says. "They're formulaic. They'd tell them their name and they write the book."
Not so in this case. "It reads like butter melting on bread. It's so well-crafted and flows," Rickman says. "He is in old age and is not well and he's not frightened of anybody — he's a truth teller. I think it's the best narrative written by a free person of color ever. More so than Frederick Douglass."
Rickman will discuss the book after a noon lunch in the Chancellor's Dining Room at the Sharpe Refectory on the Brown University campus on February 3. A meeting to help plan the project will be held on February 10 at 5:30 pm at the Brick School House, 24 Meeting Street, Providence.