The exhibition “Invisible Bodies, Disposable Cloth: Slavery in Rhode Island, 1783-1850s” ran in the University of Rhode Island Main Gallery from Jan. 23 to Feb. 17, as part of University of Rhode Island’s commemoration of Black History Month. Two of the URI staffers that put together the gallery were Professor Bob Dilworth and Deborah Baronas.
Baronas said that the exhibit was meant to shed light on a part of the history of Rhode Island that many people did not know about, namely its involvement in the slave trade.
“Rhode Island’s entire economy was really centered around the slave trade, slavery, and the business of slavery,” Baronas said. “At one point, 10 percent of Rhode Island’s population were slaves and so this is the untold story, the invisible labor.”
According to Baronas, a big point of the show was to highlight the contributions that Black people made, both during the time of slavery and afterwards, when white people tried to wipe them out of their landscape.
The gallery attempted to show the greatness of people that have been written out by history, highlighting work by slaves in many fields, including the whaling industry. It featured stories of slaves from both Rhode Island and the South. Baronas also wanted to make it obvious what abolitionists were fighting for in the beginning of the movement and that to them, there were big differences between what they perceived as freedom and equality.
Dilworth said that he believes the gallery to be one of the most important shows that has been done in Rhode Island for a long time. He hopes students gained new perspectives and see that slavery was not just a Southern phenomenon from visiting the exhibit.
“They gave some insight into how Rhode Island was involved in the slave trade and in fact,” Dilworth said, “The business of slavery was the business of Rhode Island. The North was not innocent, and there’s this myth that they are, the way the fiction has been written in history is that the South was the culprit.”
When asked if he wanted the University to do more to recognize Black History Month, Dilworth said it varies from year to year, pointing out that exhibits like this need to be in development for huge amounts of time before they are able to go up. Still, Dilworth believes that “we all could do more, but it takes a lot of time and planning to make it happen.”
The gallery was put on in partnership with the Center For the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, as well as contributions from the Rhode Island Middle Passage Port Markers Project, and the Center For Reconciliation in Providence.