Providence church eyed as site for slavery museum

cathedral of st. john

Providence’s Cathedral of St. John may be shuttered, but out front of the 200-year-old structure is a church billboard with block letters that read, “GOD IS NOT DONE WITH US YET.”

Indeed, it appears the church may take on a second life as means to shed light on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the role that all early US states – North and South – played in perpetuating slavery.

The Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island wants to use part of the Cathedral of St. John for a museum that would examine the state’s role in the slave trade, both those who profited from it and those who opposed it. Churchgoers and clergymen were on both sides.

“In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Rhode Islanders backed 1,000 trips between Africa and the Americas,” according to the Providence Bulletin. “Newport, Bristol and Providence were among the busiest slave trade ports in North America.”

The museum would be the only one in the nation centered on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It would also focus on the Episcopal Church’s role in that trade’s history and the often-overlooked legacy of slavery in northern states.

Ironically, the Cathedral of St. John is just a few hundred feet from both the site identified as where Roger Williams founded Providence in 1636 and the location of Williams’ home. Williams, a proponent of religious freedom, has been called the New World’s first abolitionist.

Rhode Island, the nation’s smallest state, played a very large role in slavery.

A Brown University report issued in 2006 found that about 60 percent of all slave-trading voyages launched from North America came from the state, more than 1,000 in all. Some 80 of those came from a single family, the DeWolfs of Bristol, RI.

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The maverick who wrote ‘Jingle Bells’

savannah unitarian universalist church

Among the myriad tragedies of the American Civil War was its impact on families, with many divided as some members cast their lots with the North and others sided with the South.

One such individual who broke with his family over the war was James Lord Pierpont, a Boston native whose father Rev. John Pierpont was an abolitionist and pastor of a Unitarian church in the Massachusetts capital.

James Pierpont enjoyed a fascinating life by any measure.

Sent to boarding school at age 10, he ran away four years later, sailing aboard a whaling ship called The Shark. He apparently found sea life to his liking; following his stint aboard The Shark he served in the Navy until he was 21.

By 1845, he had returned to New England and married, but in 1849, James Pierpont left his wife and children with his father to open a business in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. However, his business failed after his goods were destroyed in a fire.

James returned to New England, but his wife died in 1853. When his brother accepted a position as pastor at a Savannah, Ga., Unitarian church, James followed, taking over as the organist and music director, according to Timothy Daiss’ 2002 book Rebels, Saints, and Sinners: Savannah’s Rich History and Colorful Personalities.

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