On May 18th, 1652, Rhode Island became the first of the thirteen colonies to ban slavery. The good intentions of those who wrote the law, however, went unheeded – the statute was largely ignored for over a century, as many merchants in the state became leading slave traders in colonial America.
The act read,
“Whereas, it is a common course practiced amongst English men to buy negroes, to that end they have them for service or slave forever: let it be ordered, no blacke mankind or white being forced by covenant bond, or otherwise, to serve any man or his assighnes longer than ten years or until they come to bee twentie four years of age, if they be taken in under fourteen, from the time of their cominge with the liberties of this Collonie.”
According to historians, the law only applied to Providence and Warwick, and banned lifetime ownership of slaves. The law essentially allowed for indentured servitude, which permitted ownership for a period of ten years.
“There’s no evidence that it was ever enforced,” noted Christy Clark-Pujara, author of Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island and professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, Rhode Island has a slave population of 6.3 percent, twice as high as the any other New England colony. Although many abolitionists resided in RI, many of the state’s leading families made fortunes in the slave trade, even after slavery was gradually banned, beginning in 1784. It is estimated that in the years after the Revolution, Rhode Island slave merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American slave trade.