Reverend Mahlon Van Horne

The Rhode Island Secretary of State’s website is a treasure trove of information, connecting Rhode Islanders with important documents about people and events in Rhode Island history. In this, Black History Month, the website offers another important resource, chronicling “the history of the African American experience in Rhode Island.”

We reached out to Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, asking permission to use many of the documents during this month. We’ll run these throughout February, beginning today with the introduction to the African American section, and a 1652 law limiting the terms of servitude.

Besides an African American section, the website, under its civic-and-education section, includes sections about the American Revolution, Industrialization and Immigration, Native Americans, Rhode Island’s Royal Charter, Suffrage, U.S. Constitution, and Women.

To access the site visit Click on Educators and Themed Collections.

What follows is from the website:

African Americans

People of African heritage have lived in Rhode Island since the 17th century. The first Africans were brought to Rhode Island as part of the transatlantic maritime trade known as the Triangle Trade. Traders made rum in Rhode Island using sugar cane harvested in the Caribbean; the rum was then used to purchase African men, women, and children who were sold into slavery. Between 1700-1800, Rhode Island merchants sponsored approximately 1,000 slaving voyages, bringing over 100,000 Africans to America. While many were sold to plantation owners in the southern colonies, some were kept in Rhode Island as indentured servants or slaves.  By the 1770s Rhode Island had the greatest population of slaves per capita in New England.

The history of the African American experience in Rhode Island goes well beyond slavery, however.  Rhode Island was the first state to create an explicitly non-white military regiment during the American Revolution. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, also known as “The Black Regiment,” was comprised of African American and Native American men.  It served in several battles including the decisive Battle of Yorktown in 1781. During the Civil War, Rhode Island was one of the first states to propose a voluntary regiment comprised entirely of African American soldiers. Rhode Island’s African American residents were also civically engaged, actively petitioning the General Assembly in their pursuit of equal rights in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Law limiting terms of servitude, 1652 

This is an excerpt from the May 18, 1652, meeting of the “General Court of Election,” a precursor to the General Assembly. The law states that indentured servants who have served ten years are to be given their freedom. The law also makes a provision for children indentured before turning 14; those children are to be free when they reach age 24. It was the earliest such law in the colonies, however it was not well enforced.

Law limiting terms of servitude, 1652
In 1652 the General Assembly voted to limit the period of indenture that any servant, black or white, could be made to serve. It is considered the first anti-slavery law in the colonies, though it was not well enforced.


Acts and Orders made at the General Court of Election held at Warwick this 18th of May, anno. 1652 The Commissioners of Providence and Warwick being lawfully met and set. Whereas, there is a common course practiced amongst English men to buy “negers,” to that end they may have them for service or slaves forever; for the preventing of such practices among us, let it be ordered, that no black mankind or white be forced to covenant bond or otherwise to serve any man or his assignes longer than ten years, or until they come to be twenty four years of age if they be taken in under fourteen, from the time of their coming within the liberties of this Colony; and at the end or term of ten years to set them free, as the manner is with the English servants. And that man that will not let them go free or shall sell him away elsewhere to that end that they may be enslaved to others for a longer time, he or they shall forfeit to the Colony forty pounds.