Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice

A Providence Slavery Center in Old Episcopal Cathedral

Rhode Island’s Episcopal Church is about to unveil plans for a museum and teaching center dedicated to the slave trade. The state has a long and difficult history of involvement  in slavery.  RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay discussed the proposal with Episcopal Bishop Nicholas Knisely, whose wife happens to work for Rhode Island Public Radio.

St. John's Cathedral
Plans for a museum and center on slavery at the now-vacant Cathedral of St. John in Providence are set to be unveiled
Credit: Will Hart / flickr

St. John’s Cathedral, once the nation’s oldest cathedral parish, sits empty today in a forlorn reminder of onetime greatness.

The Gothic and classical  building on North Main Street  with a leaking roof and structural damage, was closed for lack of money for repairs three years ago. A storied history doesn’t always pay the bills.

Now, Bishop Nicholas Knisely, leader of Rhode Island’s Episcopalians, wants to reopen the building as a "Center for Reconciliation," a museum, worship center and classroom of sorts for the study of Rhode Island’s role in the era of slavery.

There is truth to that old mordant line about Rhode Island: That only the best families in our tiny state can trace their lineage all the way back to a rum runner or slave trader. Some of those slave traders were Christians of the Episcopal denomination. Others were Christians and Jews; representatives of just about every sect in the diverse colony that was Rhode Island, except  the Quakers, profited from the slave trade.

While Rhode Island’s economy was never as yoked to slavery as was the American South, the early American slave trade was largely Rhode Island’s. Ships owned by Rhode Island merchants carried more than 60 percent of the American trade in African slaves, according to `The Notorious Triangle’ a scholarly book by historian Jay Coutry.

The risky and hugely profitable trade in human beings helped fuel some of our state’s earliest fortunes, notably the Brown family of Providence, which endowed the Ivy League university, and the DeWolf family of Bristol, which built the marble Linden Place mansion that stands still on Hope Street near the harbor that launched slave ships.

The cathedral was shuttered before Knisely became bishop. He wishes the historic building wasn’t closed, but says, ``This was the hand of cards I was dealt.’’

So Knisley has been working  with Episcopalians around the state, the African-Community, Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation, to fashion a new role for the old cathedral.

``We are talking to everyone we can talk to,’’ says Knisely. A community meeting on the topic is scheduled for Saturday, June 6th at 9 St. Stephen’s Church on George Street near the Brown campus.

Some of the inspiration for this new center comes from the movie `Traces of the Trade’ a documentary by descendants of the DeWolf family, who were Episcopalians. The film follows 10 DeWolf descendants, aged 32 to 71, as they reenact the steps of the triangle slavery trade from Bristol, to the coast of Ghana and the ruins of a family plantation in Cuba.

The documentary explores the legacy of slavery as a nation and as a family. It looks at such questions as who owes what for the original sin of America and what kind of history do we inherit as individuals and as citizens.

Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade is a complex subject, filled with contradictions. It split families. The Browns were a prominent example. The four Brown brothers, John, Nicholas, Moses and Joseph engaged in one disastrous slaving expedition in November of 1764, on the brig Sally. The trip lost money and Moses, Joseph and Nicholas were never again involved in slaving. But John continued in the trade and defended it until he died in 1803, just five years before the British Navy shut down the international slave trade.

And while John ran slave ships, Moses Brown, raised a Baptist, converted to Quakerism and became a leading abolitionist who freed all of his own slaves.

The Civil War would eventually end slavery in the 1860s. Knisley says the  war changed the way Christians interpreted the Bible, from a literal reading on the subject of slavery to a more allegorical and symbolic understanding.

Besides the  political, economic  and spiritual exploration of slavery,  Knisely’s vision could lead to another historic tourism opportunity for Providence, which boasts many such sites, including John Brown’s mansion a few blocks from the empty cathedral.

The cathedral is across the street from the Roger Williams Memorial Park, which celebrates the religious tolerance legacy of Providence’s first white settler. It is also a short walk to the majestic Statehouse, which teems with visitors year around.

Rhode Islanders love to complain, as if it is embedded in our DNA as deeply as Narragansett Bay, but on this  project, the lone question should be – Why has it taken so long?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40, and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and commentary at our `On Politics’ Blog at