Above: Scalloptown residential shanties 1930s.
By Alan F. Clarke
“I am not informed as to who the artist may have been, to whom we were indebted for the statues of the malefactors which adorned the front of the jail … whatever footprints he may have left upon the sands of time being long since drowned in the waters of oblivion.
“These figures were images of wood, one supposed to represent a murderer, the other a robber. Both were ornamented with iron wristlets, and fetters, and chains, and were painted, the one black, the other white, and the jail itself was always painted yellow, so that the characteristic statuary, being placed in each side over the front entrance, stood out in bold relief as guardian angels of this harbor of refuge, presenting an inviting and exhilarating spectacle to the young offenders who were committed for their first offense against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth. At that time the railroad bridge, not being in existence, nothing interrupted the view of the building from the centre of the village, and whether or not, the moral influence was good, it was impossible to forget for long that the sword of justice was unbending in a positive and peremptory manner over the head of the wrongdoer.”
Those flowery Victorian words about the two original statues above the Kent County Jail doorway were spoken by Dr. Henry E. Turner in a speech, “Reminiscences of East Greenwich,” delivered before the East Greenwich Business Men’s Association on April 11, 1892. Dr. Turner, a Newport resident by then, came of age in East Greenwich, the grandson of Dr. Peter Turner, a Revolutionary War surgeon, brother-in-law of General Varnum, and a resident of the house at the northeast corner of Court (now Courthouse Lane) and Peirce Streets.
Without regard for which of the two “malefactors” was the murderer or the robber, the symbolism of them was equal justice under the law. They were both equally chained. The only distinction between the two is really the color of their faces. The clothing depicted on the modern version of the black prisoner was derived from studies since there is no record of the style worn by the original statue of the black prisoner. There is no mention of race or slavery. They were a product of the post-slavery era in town. Basically it says if you are a wrongdoer, black or white, you were going to be treated in the same manner. The statues were, in fact, a warning to the youth of the town: if you do wrong, you are going to be punished, regardless of the color of your skin. And punishment could mean time in stocks on the Courthouse lawn as well as time in the County Jail.
As there was no railroad bridge then, the view was clear. With the Kent County Courthouse at the top of the hill and the Kent County Jail at the bottom, the two were paired. King Street at the time was unpaved and given to muddy transport downhill in wet seasons, so the nicknames “Head of the Gutter” and “Foot of the Gutter” applied to each building respectively. I was told a long time ago by Richard Whitaker, a local history buff, that the town was laid out by engineers who had no knowledge that it was situated on a series of steep hills. That King Street was to be the main thoroughfare and east-west streets were the dominant. Things did not work out that way. Main Street was a necessary afterthought. I don’t know if that it’s true, of course. The facts behind such truths are lost in the “sands of time, being long since drowned in the waters of oblivion” much the same as described in the above by Dr. Turner as he refers to the statue’s carver.
As a former member of the preservation society, I was party to the reinstitution of the statues. After several failed attempts to get an appointment at the John Brown House to have the woodcarver actually see the one statue that still exists, I finally brought him to Providence and literally banged on John Brown’s door and then we got in to see it. He could not touch the statue. He could not photograph it. All he could do was hover over it with a tape measure and commit as much to memory as he could. When the effort eventually produced replicas, the John Brown House staff fell all over themselves to join in the project and they actually brought the original down to East Greenwich for the unveiling of the new statues.
It is a truth that the town is progressing through time and as new people take charge, new things will eventually replace the old. This can be both good and bad. Knowing why such things exist can help put light upon dark misconceptions as the meanings of our statues. In this time where the country faces an internal struggle to right many wrongs, we should not lose sight of how we got here and why things are the way they are. The true history of blacks in East Greenwich will not be passed on to following generations by removing all such historic artifacts and a pox on the society for giving in so easily to remove them. (Read about their removal HERE.)
Let’s look at the racial history as it really was in East Greenwich. After the town’s founding in 1677, almost everyone of means had at least one slave. Some had more, depending upon their needs. Slavery ended in the North some forty years before the Civil War. The men who fought and won that war were the sons and grandsons of former slave owners and slaves. Gradually, after the 1820s, local slavery ended with just a few personal servants. Are there slaves buried in our local historical graveyards? Certainly! Are there free blacks in our graveyards? Certainly! But when the Civil War ended, slaves everywhere in the country were freed and turned out to fend for themselves without benefit of any education to help them do it. Educating slaves had been very illegal. Often survival was harder for the freed slaves than when they were in bondage. It was necessary but it was not an easy transition. Local whites had little hand in aiding the newly freed exercise their new rights.
In East Greenwich a settlement of 50 to 75 blacks, including many children, formed along the Cove from the tracks at London Street down the hill to roughly the foot of Long Street. This area is called Scalloptown but that name is ascribed to the area’s nearby fishing community when actually this area was exclusively a black community on both sides of the then non-existent Water Street. Where they came from is anyone’s guess but a separate community of blacks with a few whites mixed in, lived on old boats, shanties, shacks, and just about any shelter they could find. They got by on their own means. They sometimes found income by doing any menial labor offered to them, work whites did not want to do. They fished, they grew some crops, but generally they lived alongside the town’s white community without benefit of any help and actually free from most laws. As long as they did not commit a crime against a white man, they were left to their own devices. The terms “shiftless, lazy, and no ‘count” were ascribed to them because they were offered no other choice. In effect, we blamed them for being what we created. No ways to improve their lot were forthcoming. It was a separate community and truth be known, as it turns out, sited on some of the town’s most desired property. If they had a lawyer to claim adverse possession or squatter’s rights, descendants of those people might own the shoreline today. There are plenty of pictures of such conditions upon which they had to live. It was a constant source of aggravation to the pious people of the town that the settlement existed just below their hills, but they gave them few options.
Yes, a group of ladies from St. Luke’s Church set up St. Luke’s Cottage, a settlement house on upper Long Street from which to welcome black people to come and learn how to properly cook food and other “civilizing” enterprises. Yes, a chapel was built west of the tracks on Marlborough at Long Street that opened its doors to anyone, and was particularly welcoming to the black community. A plaque exists on that building today that wrongly honors the donor of the chapel as William Northup when it should be William Northup Sherman, the founder of the R. I. Pendulum newspaper and an early local integrationist. There were such attempts to be inclusive but the needs were greater than the means and efforts could provide. The fact is, regardless of such efforts, the town took better care of its cattle than it did its citizens of color. And in the end, the way they chose to end the squalor below the hill was to force them to move and then burn their houses. The little community of blacks were forced to move to places in the state where they were more welcome.
There was a second house-burning in the early 1950s that put the finishing touches on what had been the town’s black community. As a little kid, I have a very vague recollection of being present at an evening house fire at the head of London Street in the vicinity of today’s Barbara Tuft’s playground. My lifelong perception is that it was set to eliminate the building.
The two statues above the old Kent County Jail doorway is a clue to the complicated relationship between the black and white communities of East Greenwich. The statues did not then and the new ones today were not meant to represent the racial divide. In this case they represented a uniformity between the races: equal treatment under the law. One would think their removal needs a rethink. Like St. Luke’s Cottage and the Marlborough Street Chapel, the statues represented an early effort by the community to integrate those who lived on the outside, even if it was integrated into a jail cell.
I recently transcribed a 1907 Providence Sunday Journal article about the conditions of the black community along East Greenwich’s post-Civil War shoreline and the local efforts to “civilize” its residents. In the manner of the day, it is a condescending but informational peek at a vexing social problem. It is much longer than the scope of this narrative requires but I have relied upon it heavily. You can find my transcription here: Where Civilization’s Tide Is at Ebb: Scalloptown, East Greenwich’s Most Serious Social Problem.
Alan Clarke is a local historian as well as a member of the board of East Greenwich News.
Editor’s Note: These pictures can be found in the archives of the East Greenwich Historic Preservation Society; they were given to the society for safekeeping by Bill Foster, former owner of the Rhode Island Pendulum, via Alan Clarke, who scanned them for the society.
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