A Memorial Day Address

149th Annual Memorial Day Ceremony, Warren Rhode Island

THE WORLD OF WILLIAM BARTON & JACK SISSON
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 History of American Women Worth Sharing

As someone whose family members date back to the early formation of America, and not always looking like, worshipping like, living like and fitting neatly into what history books would commonly refer to as the early American experience, I have to depend upon my own ancestral accounts to help me understand what America was like for people representing minority racial, religious, and ethnic history. In my case, I am thankful to have many primary documents and heirlooms that recount my American story, and unfortunately, from a perspective that far too many history books have omitted.

Women have made significant contributions to the advancement of our early American culture, not as conquers of land and people, founders of governments and champions of industry, but in many cases the primary source of sustenance for family, home and community. These accomplishments are all the more important when recognizing that throughout most of history, women had fewer legal rights and livelihood choices than men.

Continue reading

Nat Turner Rebellion Aftermath: When There is a Will, There is a Way

Virginia State Capitol c. 1830 by William Goodacre/Richard Forrester c. 1865

Virginia State Capitol c. 1830 by William Goodacre/Richard Forrester c. 1865

From 1800 to 1860, Virginia had more slaves than any other state. African enslavement formed the very basis of Virginia’s successful plantation based economy of raising tobacco, and the more infamous cultivation and selling of slaves to states further south for use on rice and cotton plantations.

But during the late summer of 1831, Virginia’s notion of idyllic ante-bellum life came to a bloody halt with the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion. Nat Turner and his collaborators would start a slave uprising in Southampton, Virginia that contributed to more deaths than any other slave Continue reading

A Black History Lesson for the Democratic Party in 2016

carr_beach

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

A Long Journey to Justice

IMG_1582

Arriving in Jamaica, met by Culture Minister Honorable Olivia Grange, June 2016

For me, my African heritage ancestor’s trials of enslavement is not a distant historical occurrence, but something that shaped my family life then and to this very day. I have studied the subject extensively, lectured in many historic cities and countries, and I have been fortunate to preserve many family heirlooms dating back to the early days of slavery. This past June I had the very emotional experience of walking the grounds of the Pen (Livestock Plantation) in Jamaica where my maternal African-Jamaican ancestor was born into slavery during the late 18th century. What made the experience even more significant was to have the descendant of our family’s enslaver join me to retrace the events of 221 years ago that led to one of the most notable mass slave emancipations in history. So here I am walking down a solitary dirt road in Unity Valley within St Ann’s Parish of rural Jamaica, an African heritage man from America walking with a European heritage man from England with the shared family name of Barclay, and historical connections to the founders of Barclays Bank. Continue reading

Black Lives Matter Today & Yesterday

Part One

Over the next few months, I’ll be embarking on a journey to the places of my ancestral history – first stop – Jamaica, West Indies. This trip will be highlighted with me, as the direct descendant of an enslaved Jamaican, meeting with the direct descendant of my ancestor’s European enslaver at the very plantation for the first time in 221 years.

As we have done with other branches of my family tree, we have traced the generations of my maternal grandfather, George Nicholas Barclay, back from his adult life in Newport, Rhode Island, his childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on through his father’s life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and found my great, great grandfather, Robert Barclay. In doing so, we have uncovered a story that reveals the journey from enslavement to freedom; a story so unique – yet so very American.

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

Richmond After The War

Pos01

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina. Her single work, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, and edited by famed Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, was one of the first autobiographical narratives about the struggle for freedom by an African American woman. Today, her book is compared with the “Diary of Anne Frank” as being two of the most important autobiographies depicting the resiliency of young women during times of great struggle.  During the years leading up to the Civil War, she became an abolitionist and national speaker to end slavery. Continue reading

Rhode Island African Heritage & History Timeline: 17th through 19th Centuries

sankofa1636 Providence settlement is established

1639 Newport settlement is established on southern end of Aquidneck Island.

1640 Dr. John Clarke grants land to the Town of Newport to establish a Common Burying Ground for all residents regardless of race, creed and class.

1652 Colony of Rhode Island adopts a law abolishing African slavery, where “black mankinde” cannot be indentured more than ten years. The law is largely unenforced.

1660 Charles II, King of England orders the Council of Foreign Plantations to devise strategies for converting slaves and servants to Christianity. Continue reading