During Black History Month, we are sharing some of the content on the Secretary of State’s website that chronicles some of the history  of the “African American Experience in Rhode Island.”

We’re printing these with the permission and encouragement of Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. Besides the section on African Americans, the Secretarhy of State Website includes sections on industrialization and immigration, Native Americans, the American Revolution, Rhode Island’s Royal Charter, Suffrage, U.S. Constitution, and Women.

You can access of these themed areas at www.sos.ri.gov/divisions/civic-and-education. Click on Educators and Themed Collections. Materials are from the state archives.

We’ve printed an overview of the African American experience in Rhode Island, dating back to the growth of the slave trade in Rhode Island. We also included an excerpt of a meeting of what was then called the “General Court of Election” (now General Assembly) and its enactment of a law limiting to 10 years the someone could be classified as an “indentured servant.” However, it was noted that the law was not well enforced.

Today, we include two letters, or perhaps testimony from African Americans about the involvement, or lack thereof, of Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant, in the  burning of the Gaspee.

Testimony of Aaron, 1772

“Aaron Briggs, an indentured servant living on Prudence Island, was about 16 years old when the Gaspee attack took place. In early July, Aaron left his master and came aboard a British ship called the Beaver. There, under threat of hanging, he gave an account of the event that named several suspects. This account was given to Governor Wanton who was encouraged to arrest the men Aaron named.  

Aaron, a negro man, has declared that he rowed from Prudence, the evening his Majesty’s schooner Gaspee was burnt, towards Warren, where he met a man called Potter, of Bristol, in a rowing boat, with eight men, armed with pistols, guns, and clubs; the said Potter desired him to go with him. In consequence of Potter’s desire, I rowed by his boat until I came within a quarter of a mile of the King’s schooner, that was on shore on a spit of sand. I then got into Potter’s boat by his desire; he told me with others, that he was to join other boats that was coming down from Providence, in order to burn the King’s schooner that lay on shore. In about half an hour after, we joined seventeen boats from Providence, commanded, as they informed me, by John Brown. Immediately after the boats joined company, we rowed towards the schooner; before we came close to the schooner, they hailed the boats, and forbid them coming on board; but notwithstanding the officer of the schooner forbidding the boats to come on board, we had orders to row up to the schooner, which we did immediately, and boarded her. I saw Brown fire a musket when in the boat under the bows; the captain of the schooner immediately fell from the place he was standing on; the surgeon that was ordered to dress the captain was a tall, thin man, called Weeks, of Warwick; very soon after we got on board the schooner, the men’s hands belonging to the schooner was tied behind their backs, and put in boats and put on shore. I rowed the bow oar in the boat that the captain came on shore in; I think there was five people belonging to the schooner in the boat. The captain lay abaft all the oars; Potter, of Bristol, was in the boat, and John Brown, of Providence; Brown steered the boat on shore; I had on a red and white spotted handkerchief tied on my head, and two frocks on my body. A list of five men’s names, that was concerned in destroying his Majesty’s schooner Gaspee: John Brown and Joseph Brown, principal men of the town of Providence; Simeon Potter of Bristol; Doctor Weeks, of Warwick; Richmond, of Providence.”

Testimony of Jack and Somerset, 1772

“On June 11, 1772, Jack and Somerset, indentured servants working in the same household as Aaron, are brought in to testify. Their account of Aaron’s whereabouts the night of the Gaspee attack contradicts Aaron’s own testimony. In their final report to the King, the commissioners cite this contradictory evidence as the central to their inability to accuse anyone of the crime. 

“Somerset, a mulatto, and Jack, a negro, indented servants, living with Samuel Thurston and Samuel Tompkins, on the island of Prudence, in the township of Portsmouth, in the county of Newport, of lawful age, on oath severally depose and say: That to their certain knowledge, Aaron, a mulatto lad, who is also an indented servant to the said Samuel Tompkins, and now, as they are informed, on board of a man-of-war, has not been off from said island for many months preceding the 2d day of July inst.; in the night of which the said Aaron stole a boat belonging to the said Samuel Thurston and Samuel Tompkins, and went on board a man-of-war; that the said Aaron has slept with the deponents in the same bed for several years, and particularly on the night the schooner called the Gaspee was burnt the said Aaron was at home, at the dwelling house of the said Thurston and Tompkins, and that he, the said Aaron, lay in the same room and bed with the deponents the whole of that night, having retired to bed together between nine and ten o’clock in the evening; and the deponents severally say that they have never had the least hint, or information, from the said Aaron of his having any knowledge of the burning of the said schooner Gaspee, and that they are well assured that he knows nothing of the transaction. And the deponents further say not. The mark of [X] SOMERSET. The mark of [X] JACK. Colony of RHODE ISLAND, & c., Newport, July 11, 1772. In their proper persons came and appeared the above named Somerset and Jack, and after being cautioned to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, made solemn oath to the above deposition to which they have made their respective marks, before J. WANTON, Governor.”

This story originally appeared on What’s Up Newp on February 10, 2021.

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal. Prosnitz began his journalism career as a sportswriter at the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, moving to The News Tribune (Woodbridge, NJ), before joining the Providence Journal. Prosnitz hosts the Morning Show on WLBQ radio (Westerly), 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and It’s Your Business, also on WBLQ, Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Prosnitz has twice won Best in Business Awards from the national Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), twice was named Media Advocate of the Year by the Small Business Administration, won an investigative reporter’s award from the New England Press Association, and newswriting award from the Rhode Island Press Association.