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A Walking Tour through Bristol's African-American History

A Walking Tour through Bristol's African-American HistoryBristol merchants were involved in the slave trade throughout the 18th century.

However, after the Revolution and adoption of the new Federal Constitution, these merchants became leaders in privateering, smuggling and slave trading. Bristol's financial role became especially prominent after the importing of slaves was made illegal. The state of Rhode Island supported approximately 80% of the original 13 colonies slaving voyages and Bristol merchants were involved in a majority of these voyages of whom the DeWolf family was most locally prominent.

The first reported sale of black slaves in the American colonies took place in Jamestown, VA in 1619, 61 years before Bristol was founded in 1680. The earliest mention of a slave in Bristol dates back to February 3, 1689; located in the Inventory of the estate of Proprietor Nathan Hayman. The earliest recorded death of a black was that of James Durfee on January 15, 1697, who drowned off Bristol Ferry. These recordings are from the Town's earliest records substantiating the fact that at least some blacks were here shortly after Bristol was founded.

In 1784, the Rhode Island Legislature wanted to pass a bill to emancipate all slaves in R.I. James DeWolf, members of the Brown family in Providence and others used their political influence to try and have the bill quelled. The result was a compromise, all blacks born after March 1, 1784 were to be free, all slaves between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five were to be indentured for seven years then freed; all slaves over the age of twenty-five were to remain slaves for the rest of their lives.

The slave trade was disrupted by the Revolutionary War and an unstable economy continued until 1792. Bristol played its role in stimulating the triangular trade with the operation of five distilleries' which produced a steady supply of rum, the barter of human cargo. The RI General Assembly passed a law in November of 1787, which imposed a fine on any one ship owner who was caught importing slaves into RI.

Seven members of the DeWolf family; James, John, William, Charles, George, Levi, and Samuel were responsible for 59.4% of all slave voyages originating from the shores of Bristol between 1784-1808. One-third of all slaving voyages occurring from Rhode Island happened after the slave trade was outlawed by federal government in 1808. The DeWolf's profits were so great, that they controlled the bulk of the economy of Bristol. George and James DeWolf both went bankrupt in 1825 which resulted in a collapse of Bristol's economic solvency. The happened because most of the local businesses were geared to the support of the slave trade. The resulting depression lasted twenty years.

Much of Bristol's existing built environment reflects the wealth generated from the slave trade. Owners of ships and the backers of slaving voyages built large mansions and estates while the workers who made barrels and other products built more modest dwellings. In addition, banks, counting houses, distilleries, ropewalks and a host of other support buildings were constructed to either enable this trade or to deal with the profits it generated. Bristol's architecturally legacy is the most compelling evidence of the town's profiting from this trade in human cargo.  (Stefan Fetterhoff, Christopher Baxter, Lisa Ryan)

1. Commercial Bank of Bristol, 565-567 Hope Street, 1814
Bristol's extensive maritime trade in the years between the Revolution and 1825 stimulated the economy and provided both extensive profits and the need for large capital investments. As a result, six commercial banks were established in the town. The Commercial Bank of Bristol was the largest of these and it settled its headquarters in this brick structure located at the corner of Bradford and Hope Streets. Built in 1814, it is a two story, 3 bay, hipped roof Federal building with brownstone quoins and window surrounds. The Customs House was moved to this location between 1845-1857. Through the years, this building had housed a variety of tenants including the YMCA, the Town Clerks Office, the telephone company, dentist and tobacco and candy shop. The Bradford Street entrance was eliminated in 1903 and after World War II, the Hope Street entrance became a serving counter (for ice cream by the current occupant Balzano's Pizza). Of particular note from its banking past are the heavy iron shutter pins embedded around the exterior of the first floor windows. These held iron shutters that were closed at night to provide security for the depositor's funds. (Kevin Mendes, Joe Serra)

2. Linden Place, 500 Hope Street, 1810
General George DeWolf was one of the leading merchants in Bristol in the early 19th century and the most successful representative of the famous slave trading family. As a family group the DeWolfs were well known for bringing more slaves into this country and making more money from the slave trade than any other family of their era. General George showed his wealth by building this mansion in 1810. Designed by local housewright, turned professional architect, Russell Warren, it is a 3-story, 5-bay Federal House with carved details, a bulls eye skylight and a spiral staircase.

In 1825 when George DeWolf went bankrupt, he fled Bristol and his uncle James purchased the house in 1828. It was then sold to his son William Henry. When William Henry's wife Sarah died in 1865, they sold the house to Christopher Colt in an auction. He transferred the house to his mother Theodora Goujaud DeWolf Colt, and she planted the linden trees for which the house is named. Although the Colt family came to Bristol from Hartford, CT, for the mother Theodora, it was a homecoming since she was the daughter of General George DeWolf and fled the very same building with her father back in 1825. General George's grandson, Samuel P. Colt gave the mansion a new importance in the early 20th century and he gave the town the Colt School, in memory of his mother.

In 1986, the Friends of Linden Place was formed to acquire the site from the last living Colt heirs. It is being restored and preserved as a landmark for public use and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (John Krushnowski, Katelin Aguiar, Vanessa Reiman)

3. Freeman's Bank/Customs House, 37-39 State Street, 1811
Customs or Duties are taxes levied by the Government on imported or exported goods to support the government and to protect home industry. All goods brought into the United States from foreign countries must be landed at certain places called ports of entry. At each port of entry a custom house is established with officers to compute and collect the duties. Through the political influence of James DeWolf, Bristol and Warren, RI became an independent customs district in 1801, by order of President Thomas Jefferson, Charles Collins was appointed collector of customs in 1804. Collins, a relative of DeWolf's, and captain of a slave ship, ignored the fact slaving voyages, which had been outlawed under RI law in 1787, were continuing to set sail from the shores of Bristol. The sides of the building are built from African granite. The stone was used as ballast on slavers that frequented Bristol's harbor. The Customs House was located here between 1817 and 1845. The Freeman's Bank, established in 1817, was also housed here. Charles Collins was appointed its first president.  (Tara Otis, Marnie Jenkins)

4. James DeWolf Warehouse, 267 Thames Street, 1818
James DeWolf and his brother built the DeWolf Warehouse in 1818. It is located on Thames Street between State and Bradford streets. It is a long, two-story, gable-roofed building built of African ballast stones in a style often seen in the West Indies. Slaves brought here would have been brought back by the DeWolf's and other local merchants as their personal property, for use as household servants and field hands. Merchandise such as lumber, produce and hay were also stored there. In 1861 the warehouse belonged to Seth Paull and he developed it into a coal and lumber yard. It was sold in 1952 to the J.T. O'Connell Company and became the J.T. O'Connell Lumber Co., office warehouse and salesroom. It is vacant today.  (Cathleen Barry, Gabby Ganther)

5. Bank of Bristol, 267 Thames Street, 1797
Built in 1797, originally an elegant, 3-story, 5-bay, hip-roofed, Federal brick structure, as a counting house by James and William DeWolf. Its location to the harbor made it a vital part of the slaving business. It was also the location of the Bank of Bristol, chartered in 1800 with a capital of $50,000. It ceased operation in 1865, when the National Banking System was established. Damaged by the 1938 hurricane, this structure was reduced to its present, 1-story, flat roofed form and exterior windows were tiled with brick. If you look carefully at the building today you can still see its central entrance with two windows on either side. These windows still show their brownstone lintels.  (Jennah Morin, Kate Fletcher, Kristin Havrilla, Kevin Botelho)

6. Byron Diman's Counting House, 267 Thames Street, 1835
A Counting House was a specialized place of business where merchants, traders, or manufacturers tabulated their profit and loss; and where all business related records were kept, such as ships manifests, inventories, correspondence, payroll and other records pertaining to the specific purpose of the established business.

Byron Diman, who served as governor of RI between 1846-1847, used this Greek Revival structure as an office in the 1850s. Diman, a DeWolf protégé, became a leading trader and banker. After 1861 the building was used as an office for the Seth Paull Company. It later became part of the J.T. O'Connell Lumber Company complex in 1952. It is a brick structure under the red stucco and the first floor has been altered for the storefront once used by the lumber company.  (Stephanie Bergeron, Joey Maxmean, Michelle Tryon, Dara Tebo)

7. Former Distillery Site, 1792-c.1827
In 1792 a distillery for the manufacture of New England rum commenced operations. It belonged to Shearjashub Bourn and Samuel Wardwell, and stood on the wharf where the Nanquit Mill previously stood, on the west side of Thames Street between Bradford and Franklin streets. The site is now part of the parking lot, just north of the Premier Thread building. In it, for nearly thirty-five years, two hundred gallons of rum were made each day. The rum was placed in barrels called "hogsheads", which held 63 gallons each. A ready market for it product was found on the coast of Africa. At one time, in Bristol, five distilleries were in active operation. In each of them, molasses was converted into rum. The last was closed in 1830, the business having ceased to be profitable. The water in which they used was brought in wooden pipes from a spring about two miles northeast of the town.  (Jonathan Vales)

8. Carrington Palmer Munroe House, 698 Hope Street, c.1853
The Carrington Palmer Munroe House was built circa 1853, at 698 Hope Street. The house is a Greek Revival, 1 1/2 story cottage, with a gable roof and wooden shingles over clapboard. The house was built by Mr. Munroe who was a free black and cooper (barrelmaker) by trade. He bought the property for one dollar and paid off a seven hundred dollar mortgage left by Thomas Diman. When Mr. Munroe bought the property there was already a house there which he had torn down. He was able to send two daughters to Saint Mary's Academy, a Christian school for colored girls, in Baltimore, MD. The two daughters named Etta Munroe and Maria Louisia Munroe. Etta was born Nov. 28, 1863 and Maria Louisia was born Nov. 22, 1865. The house remained in the Munroe family until 1945.  (Nicholas Texeira, Kerri Meyer)

9. "Song" Haskell House, 100 Franklin Street, 1808
"Song" Haskell, and his wife Morea were pure Africans who were owned by Mrs. Haskell. She allegedly gave him this name because of his singing voice. In 1808, Song Haskell built a house in the New Goree Community. It was originally located near the corner of Franklin Street (then known as Ministerial Lane) and Wood Street. Sometime in the mid 19th century, when the New Goree Community was being dispersed, Song's house was moved from its original site and tradition has it that it was placed here on Franklin Street. Song's wife and two children are buried in the East Burial Ground.  (Amanda Cabral, Christopher Emery)

10. York Usher House, 568 Wood Street, 1805
James Usher, a white, was the first owner of a large tract of land located off Wood Street in what was later to be called New Goree. In 1805, York Usher, a free black and former Usher slave, purchased a section of the land and constructed a small two room cottage. York served on board ships for a number of years and was referred to in the records as a laborer. He sold the house in 1828 to another freed slave. However, by the 1850s, the land was back under the control of the white Usher family, who developed it after the Civil War into house lots based around Usher Street (now called St. Elizabeth's Street). The house stands today to the rear of 568 Wood Street.  (Jessica Andrade, Jessica Snow)

11. New Goree Community, Wood Street, c.1789
The census of 1774 records 114 blacks in a total population of 1209, almost one-tenth of the total. Initially, slaves and former slaves lived scattered on the lands of the white land owners. However, with the move towards abolishing slavery after the American Revolution, Bristol's slaves began collecting in an area of town that was soon called New Goree. It was named after an island off the coast of Africa that was a major shipping port for Africans into the slave systems of the New World. The exact dimensions are unclear, but it fronted on Wood Street from Crooked Lane (currently Bay View Avenue) to the north and Jack Barney's Lane (currently Shaw's Lane) to the south. The 1851 map of Bristol shows the African Church on Wood Street and a number of names (Usher, Clarke, Haskell, Spooner, Munroe, and Hazzard) of members of this thriving black community. The rise of the large rubber factory on Wood Street in 1864 saw the decline of the neighborhood and by the 1880s, New Goree was only a memory among the older citizens of Bristol.  (Elizabeth Palazzo, Amelia Cabral, Colleen Meagher)

12. Marie Hazzard House, 495 Wood Street
This 1 1/2 story, wood framed house was originally across the street in the Goree Community. When the National Rubber Company needed the land, Marie Hazzard decided that it was in her best interest to sell the land to the Rubber Company. In return they gave her three lots of land across the street and moved her house to one of them. Marie's son Daniel bought the house in 1875. Marie Hazzard is listed in the 1875 census as Mulatto, and in the 1895 census as Indian.  (Frank Pirri, Lesley Breen)

13. African Church, 417 Wood Street, (before 1851)
The 1851 "Walling" map of Bristol, references this site as the African Church on school lands. It was also used as a school. This school provided education for the town's black children until RI outlawed segregated schools in 1864. Between 1864-1900 the building became a private home. Its orientation on the lot was changed when Wood Street was extended north from the common. The building was then bought by the Town of Bristol in the early 1900s for the town's use. It was sold in the 1960s to the Bristol Sports Club.(Kenny Watson, Joaquim DaFonseca)

For additional information on Bristol's history visit the Bristol Historical Society located at 48 Court Street. The Historical Society was formerly the Bristol County Jail. Built in 1828 of stone used as ballast on DeWolf ships. A museum, hall, library, D.A.R. room and two of the original cells are in this building.