“The Negro in Rhode Island: His Past, Present & Future”

Over one hundred and thirty years ago, my ancestor, Reverend Mahlon Van Horne of Newport, Rhode Island wrote a narrative on the past, present and future of the “Negro” in Rhode Island and the nation. This narrative faithfully reflects today’s issues of social justice as it did in 1887 when it was first published. Van Horne was one of Rhode Island’s, and the nation’s, African heritage trailblazers. The pastor of Newport’s Union Colored Congregational Church, which evolved from the first African Union Society in America in 1780, he became the first person of color to be elected to the Newport School Board and Rhode Island General Assembly, leading the effort to pass the state’s first Civil Rights legislation in 1885. During the Spanish American War, he was appointed by President McKinley as Counsel to the Danish West Indies. Van Horne was also a student of African heritage and history and published an important narrative that would challenge the notions of religious freedom, equal justice and discrimination that continue to be the greatest impediments for a just America, a place where all citizens are entitled to the same rights and benefits. He wrote:

There can be no question as to the purposes of God when we consider the history of any particular section of this country. The human family was looking for a field in which to expand into a broader and brighter life. Protestantism and a simpler worship was the burden that weighed upon the men and women who migrated to these shores. The Catholics who came to North America were aggressive and wide awake, but found themselves surrounded with a dominant new spirit of civil and religious liberty. Amid the friction engendered by these forces, the Negro appears upon the scene. He was not a persecuted Christian, but heathen man with a great human heart.

He was landed in America not to catch the spirit of liberty and religious freedom which the Puritans expected. His was to be an entirely different experience. The Puritan would be schooled in the things that would draw out his self-reliant individuality in all matters pertaining to manhood. The Negro was to live in the Christian home and upon the rich plantation of the now favored pilgrim, yet the Negro is impressed with the fact by teachers in the schools, the pulpit and the press that his destiny was to be a hero of wood and drawer of water. That his individuality was to be the personality of his master.

Two hundred and forty years he bore this yoke upon his neck in Christian America. It is true there were flashes of liberty on his behalf. The efforts through all this period was like the beating of waves against the rock bound coast. American slavery was the most hopeless and demoralizing of any recorded in history. In every slave state in this country, as long as the system lasted, all prosperity gained by the slave belonged to the master. How large a part of their lives have been spent in labor that has returned them nothing?

We cannot consider the Negro of today and tomorrow without consideration his environment in the past and present. Our present may be considered as beginning with the completion of Reconstruction and by the amended Constitution which accords to the whole people every right belonging to man. The inspiration of hope is leveling the whole lump. Prejudice is the bar, however, that stands in the way now, and prevents a complete development.


July 11th has always been significant to me – after all, it is the day I was born. However, it is also the day, 241 years ago, that my ancestor, Moses Michael Hays stood before the majority government and religious establishment in Newport, Rhode Island to declare his rights of religious freedom and, as now imbedded in the 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution, to enjoy the right to be confronted with any witnesses against him.

On that 11th day of July, 1776, only one week after the fledging Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain, the Rhode Island General Assembly, led by Newport merchant Metcalf Bowler, declared some sixty Newport residents might be “inimical” or hostile to the Patriot cause. These men, including a number of Jewish residents, were required to come before the General Assembly and sign a declaration of loyalty to the American Colonies.

Before recounting how Moses Michael Hays responded to this official request, it is important to know the man and the time and place he lived. Hays was born in New York City in 1739 to Judah Hays and Rebecca Michaels Hays. His parents arrived in New York from Amsterdam in 1729 and were naturalized on the 12th of July of that year, taking the Oath of Allegiance on September 9, 1729. The Hays family became early and active members of New York’s Shearith Israel, recognized today as the oldest Jewish Congregation in America. Judah Hays took his son into his merchant and retail business and, upon his death in 1764, left him the largest share of his assets. In 1766, Moses Michael Hays married Rachel Myers, younger sister of eminent New York silversmith Myer Myers. In 1769, the couple relocated to Newport, living on Broad Street close to the recently completed synagogue and the state capitol within the Old Colony House. Hays was not only a well-known merchant trader, he would also organize and bring the warrant for the Scottish Rite Masonic Order to America.

But on the 11th of July in 1776, Moses Michael Hays was not seen as natural born citizen of America or as a successful merchant and civic leader in Newport, but as someone who might harbor unfriendly beliefs in support of the newly organized United State of America. While many of the accused simply came before the General Assembly and signed the oath of loyalty as written, Hays demanded to stand before the government body and present a letter that expressed not only his rights as a fellow American citizen, but as a member of a religious minority.

Hays refused to sign the oath, electing to instead come before the General Assembly to present a letter that not only affirmed his belief in the revolutionary cause, but also a belief in a just cause that respected religious differences and removed any religious means test for loyalty and citizenship. This was a bold, but necessary action taken by Hays since Rhode Island well before the Revolutionary War, was established as a Colony under the principles of religious freedom, but excluded the full rights of citizenship to those that did not profess the Protestant, Christian faith. Hays letter included this statement:

“I have and ever shall hold the strongest principles and attachments to the just rights and privileges of this my native land. … I decline subscribing to the Test [that is, to take the oath] at present for these principles: First, that I … call for my accusers and proof of conviction, Second, that I am an Israelite and am not allowed the liberty of a vote, or a voice in common with the rest of the voters … Thirdly, because the Test is not general … and Fourthly, … the General Assembly of this [colony has] never in this contest taken any notice or countenance respecting the Society of Israelites to which I belong.”

The General Assembly accepted Hays’ letter and he ultimately singed the oath. After the war, Hays would join others in Newport’s Jewish community to lead the effort to permanently remove any religious test for citizenship through a letter to newly elected President George Washington. This August 17, 1790 letter, signed by the warden of the Newport Hebrew Congregation declared,

“Deprived as we herefore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People, a government, which to bigotry give no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to all liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship, deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.”

Every year in August, Newport’s congregation Yeshuat Israel at historic Touro Synagogue celebrates the exchange of letters between the congregation and President Washington as a remembrance to the importance of unconditional and universal religious liberty.

As founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams sought to establish a “Lively Experiment” where a new colony would be governed by the principles of religious liberty, separation of church and state and most importantly, the liberty of conscience, where each citizen would have the freedom to follow one’s religious or moral beliefs. Moses Michael Hays’ life and his actions on that July date over two hundred and forty years ago, would best embody the freedoms so many of us take for granted today.

A Memorial Day Address

149th Annual Memorial Day Ceremony, Warren Rhode Island

Let me begin with; there may be no more noble a cause than the men and women of the Armed Services who routinely place their lives in danger for our safety and benefit. I dedicate my remarks to those men and women, particularly those who died while serving our state and country. Without them, we wouldn’t be free. Continue reading

Old Glory: The Symbol of One America

Federal Flag over Richmond, April 1865
Image courtesy of Library of Congress

After four long years of blood and war, Union Troops on the morning of April 3, 1865 entered the city of Richmond, Virginia, then capital of the Confederate States of America. Richmond had become the single-minded focus of the Union war effort, in a civil war between Americans of Northern and Southern persuasions that would claim an estimated six hundred thousand combatants. As southern soldiers, officials and sympathizers abandoned Richmond to advancing Union forces on that early morning in 1865, retreating Confederate soldiers set fire to grain and tobacco warehouses. The blaze spread quickly and left a significant part of the city in ruins. Through the chaos of evacuations, sporadic skirmishes and raging fire, one of the first of many Union troops to enter Richmond included a company of men with the Thirteenth New Hampshire Regiment. The memoirs of the regiment have been compiled and published in the “Thirteenth Regiment of the New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion” by S. Millet Thompson, an officer with the regiment. Thompson provides a vivid and detailed account of the events of April 3, 1865, at the fall of the Confederate capitol:

“… There was no flag on the roof of the capitol when I entered the grounds, but within a few minutes it suddenly appeared on the flagstaff on the roof, and immediately afterward I had a conversation with the man who raised it. He was a light colored boy named Richard G. Forrester, living on the corner of College and Marshall. When the State of Virginia passed the ordinance of secession, he was a page or errand boy employed in the capitol. The secessionists tore down the flag and threw it among some rubbish in the eaves at the top of the building. At the first convenient opportunity, he rolled the flag in a bundle, carried it to his home and placed it in his bed, where he slept on it nightly since that time. This morning, he said, as soon as he dared after the Confederates had left the city, he drew the old flag from its hiding place, ran to the capitol with it, mounted to the top and ran the flag up the flagstaff. This was the first flag hoisted in Richmond after its evacuation by the Confederates.”

Forrester Affidavit
-13th NH Regiment Book

Four years earlier, Virginia’s ordinance of secession was ratified on May 23, 1861. Shortly after, the newly constituted Confederate Congress would declare Richmond as the new center of the Confederate States of America. The announcement drew wild celebration on the capitol grounds that was thronged with thousands of rebel revelers. As the federal flag was struck down from atop the capitol building and thrown into the rubbish to be later burned, Richard Gill Forrester, amid the chaos of celebration, rolled the flag into a bundle and carried it to his home a short distance away on College Street. Once home, unknown to his own family, he placed the flag under his bedding, where he would sleep on it nightly for the entire four years of the war. The risk he took rescuing and preserving what was seen by nearly all Southerners at the time, as the symbol of Northern aggression and invasion, was significant.

The city scene on that early morning in April 1865 after four long years of war, was one of turmoil. As fires rage across the city, streets were crowded with people, black and white, slave and free, looting stores and warehouses that were wrecked and abandoned with the approach of Union troops. Some accounts reported that barrels of liquor had been emptied into the streets, the more reckless drinking the running spirits directly from the gutters. In all the fire, smoke and confusion, Richard dashed across onto the capitol grounds and made his way up the spiral staircase that led to the roof of the Confederate capitol. There and then, he replaced Old Glory in advance of arriving Union troops.

Who was this young man and what were his family and life experiences within Civil War era Richmond that would drive him towards such an act of Union patriotism or Southern treason depending upon the point of view of the day? Richard was born into one of Richmond’s prominent free families of color in 1845. His paternal grandfather, Gustavus A. Myers, a successful lawyer and President of the Richmond City Council was a part of Richmond’s earliest Jewish families and during the war years he served as special counsel to Great Britain for the Confederate States of America. Richard’s father, Richard Gustavus Forrester was an offspring of Gustavus Myers and Nelly Forrester, a free woman of color who lived her entire life with members of the Myers family. Richard Sr. was a prosperous dairy farmer and contractor and after the war, would become the first man of color to serve on the Richmond City Council and School Board during the turbulent days of southern Reconstruction.

Young Richard grew up in a multi-racial, cultural and religious family structure that had one important commonality, members could trace themselves back to the founding days before the American Revolution. Richard adored and would be greatly influenced by his great aunt, Catherine Hays who would entertain him with stories of being born in 1776, the year of our nation’s birth, and growing up amidst the upheaval of the American Revolution era in Boston and Newport, Rhode Island. Catherine Hays was also described as a highly opinionated woman with strong “Abolitionist” tendencies, that often times placed her in ideological conflict with some members of her Southern family. She often would take young Richard on walks through Capitol Square, the park-like grounds surrounding the Virginia State Capital and point out the federal flag flying high above. She would reminiscence about seeing the earliest version of the American flag as the fledgling United States fought Great Britain for national independence.

As a member of a Sephardic Jewish family who would escape Old World religious persecution to settle in Newport, Catherine Hays knew far too well the challenges of being part of a minority group and the desire for the young country’s acceptance regardless of their religious belief. Great Aunt Catherine’s ideals along with Richard’s strong family upbringing, would spark a belief in him that would inspire him to carry out that great deed years later as the country was at the very brink of civil war.

Richard Gill Forrester c. 1885
Image courtesy of Stokes Family

After the war, Forrester was appointed to a coveted federal position with the United States Post Office Department during Reconstruction era Richmond. He later moved north to New York City with his young family and took a position with the New York and New Haven Railroad, frequently summering in Newport, the historic home of his Jewish ancestors and where his beloved Aunt Catherine is buried. He lived a full and active life and was laid to rest at the historic Island Cemetery in Newport on Nov. 15, 1909, with military honors by the Lawton and Warren Post No. 5 of the Grand Army of the Republic. His front-page obituary in the New York Age, the leading African-American newspaper of the day, was quoted as saying, “There passed away a soldier who came into prominence by gaining the distinction of being the first man who hoisted the Union flag in Richmond after the Civil War.”

The veterans who buried him honored him as a soldier for his heroic deed. More importantly, why would a young man of color be moved to protect the federal flag that flew over the building that served as the capital of the Confederate States of America? During a time in our country when nearly all persons of African heritage, slave and free, North and South were seen as non-citizens, his actions would provide no future guarantee of civil liberties for himself and family. His daring efforts were well before the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution and a Civil Rights Act that wouldn’t be achieved for another one hundred years of reconstruction and reconciliation before becoming law in 1964.

Perhaps young Forrester acted because, although a Virginian, he believed the state was part of an America that, while not perfect, was and will always be a country of opportunity for all of its people — regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or nation of origin. As he had learned from his great aunt, the American Revolution would bring freedom of religion to all American people and the end of the Civil War could bring personal freedom to all American people of all races. And just maybe, after four years of blood and war, young Forrester and the country were looking for a symbol of a unified America: our American flag.

Historical sources and further reading:

1. “Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865:A Diary Covering Three Years and a Day,” Thompson, S. Millet, Houghton, Mifflin, 1888

2. “Personal Memoirs: Phillip Henry Sheridan,” The Century Company, 1890

3. “The Stars & Stripes and Other American Flags,” Peleg D. Harrison, Little, Brown & Company, 1908

4. “A Flag & A Family,” Theresa Guzman Stokes, Virginia Cavalcade Magazine, Spring, 1998

5. “Richmond: The Story of a City,” Virginius Dabney, University of Virginia Press, 2002

6. “American City, Southern Place- A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond,” Gregg D. Kimball, University of Georgia Press, 2000

7. “Virginia at War: 1861,” William C. Davis, University Press of Kentucky, 2005

8. “The Wars of Reconstruction,” Douglas R. Egerton, Bloomsbury Press, 2014

9. “Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital,” Nelson Lankford, Penguin Group, 2003

10. “The American Journey: A History of the United States Combined Volume,” Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2006

11. Obituary of Richard Gill Forrester, New York Age Newspaper, November 25, 1909

12. When Freedom Came, Richmond Free Press, April 2015 by Elvatrice Belsches

A Black History Lesson for the Democratic Party in 2016


Mr. & Mrs. James Carr – Easton’s Beach c. 1917 Stokes Family Collection

Recently I posted an image on Facebook of my great aunt and uncle at Easton’s Beach in Newport, RI around 1917. I noted my aunt, Lillie Forrester Carr was an early African American graduate of Julliard and went on to become an accomplished music teacher in New York. Her husband, James Dickerson Carr would become the first African American graduate of Rutgers University and later earn a law degree at Columbia University. Continue reading

Separate and Sometimes Equal: African Burials in Colonial Newport

Cemeteries are largely seen as final resting places – an end, but for those interested in historical and genealogical research, cemeteries can provide a wealth of information regarding people, places and events of the past.

Tobe Brightman (died 1721) Click photo for more information

Tobe Brightman (died 1721)
Click photo for more information

Here in Newport, Rhode Island we have within the Common Burying Ground, one of America’s earliest public cemeteries, a section that dates back to at least 1705 that includes the final resting place of Colonial Era enslaved and free Africans. Over the years, historians have described the one-acre area, which the African American community would later call “God’s Little Acre” as the segregated section of a public cemetery reserved for non-whites. This logical conclusion arises from the many examples of historic “Negro” burial grounds throughout early America that were almost always sited far apart from the final resting places of the white community. Continue reading

Africans as Slave Traders

am I not a manWhat stands out with the enslavement of African heritage people as the labor force of choice during the settlement of the Western Hemisphere as compared to slavery throughout world history is the unique concept of confining slavery to a single race and that children of slave mothers were born into slavery to serve for the remainder of their lives. This brutal system of inheritable servitude would impact the lives of tens of millions of Africans for four centuries and dramatically shaped the settlement and formation of the Americas. It is important to note that while slavery also long existed in the Continue reading

Preparing for Conflict Overseas and at Home

WWI_iconAs President Woodrow Wilson in August of 1917 declared war on Germany saying, “The world must be made safe for democracy,” the United States would enter the war in Europe. That statement would particularly resonate at home to America’s African American citizenship, where the basic ideals of Democracy where all citizens can equally enjoy social, economic, educational and political freedoms seemed unfulfilled. Continue reading

African Privateers and Sailors In Colonial Rhode Island

sloop1The peculiar institution of slavery in Rhode Island had its start and evolution with the sea. The town of Newport, aptly named the “City by the Sea,” would become the fifth most active seaport in all of Thirteen Colonies by the mid-18th century, an era that historians refer to as the “Golden Age.” At this time Newport would lead Colonial America in the participation in the notorious Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In fact, between 1705 and 1805, Rhode Island merchants sponsored at least 1,000 slaving voyages to West Africa and carried over 100,000 slaves back to America. Continue reading