A wide variety of organizations across Providence work to empower people of color and highlight their histories, art and present experiences. The Herald spoke to several local organizations about their events this Black History Month — including art and historical installations and storytelling exhibitions — and the work they do year round to empower Black communities.
Rhode Island Black Heritage Society
Since 1975, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society has worked to preserve and teach about the historical artifacts of “African heritage people,” said Managing Director Theresa Guzman Stokes. Throughout the year, RIBHS partners with a variety of heritage organizations, museums and libraries to supply them with historical information and artifacts for presentations.
RIBHS’s physical location at Rhode Island College houses rooms of artifacts including historical clothing and artwork, desks, irons and manacles, Guzman Stokes said. While many museums focusing on Black history have similar artifacts, manacles “are a sight of history that is just the beginning,” she said.
According to Guzman Stokes, audiences at events held with partner organizations range from 20 people to as many as 500, but she emphasized that the content and substance of the events are more important than the size of the gatherings. “If I have one person that wants to hear the story, it’s worth doing,” she added.
This February, the society hosted an exhibition entitled “Before Malcom & Martin: The Fight for Civil Rights in RI, 1865-1968” on display at RIBHS. The exhibition will move from the RIC location and travel to every courthouse in the state, Guzman Stokes said.
Also on display until March 6 is “Frank Jackson, Light & Shadow @ See Level,” a photography exhibition that features black and white photographs of books, portraits, manacles and other artifacts from the RIBHS' archives by photographer Frank Jackson.
The society also co-hosted a panel on Feb. 27 with Sen. Jack Reed that discussed Black history and education. Guzman Stokes moderated the panel featuring 1696 Heritage Group Vice President Keith Stokes, who is also on the advisory committee for RIBHS, University Library Curator of the Black Diaspora Christopher West, Rhode Island College Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies Sherri Cummings MA’16 PhD’22 and RIC student Ashanti Dez’Amore. For Guzman Stokes, the panel was important because it “ties into the (work) we’re doing, and … ties into the fact that there’s a lot of controversy,” around teaching and critically examining race.
RIBHS also partnered with Newport Life Magazine to publish a 300-year timeline written by Keith Stokes on the history of Newport with an emphasis on African heritage.
Highlighting their focus on equity, part of the publication agreement was that free copies of the magazine would be provided to schools on Aquidneck Island, according to Guzman Stokes.
According to Guzman Stokes, RIBHS is also helping to create the curriculum for teaching African heritage history for grades K-12 in R.I. schools, as mandated by a 2021 Rhode Island law. Providing resources to teachers is a key part of this curriculum, she explained, and the RIBHS is creating an online learning portal that will allow students to search photographs, documents, videos and other stories about historical people and places. They are also developing a two-year program for R.I. high school juniors and seniors that will help them with career development, the college process and learning about their own history, she added.
“We’re trying to show all the influences that African heritage people had on what we call culture today,” Guzman Stokes said.
Providence Children’s Museum
The Providence Children’s Museum works to provide interactive educational opportunities and activities for children, along with support for local teachers and families, according to the museum’s website.
For Black History Month, the museum hosted the Rhode Island Black Storytellers on Feb. 4. Executive Director Caroline Payson said that the RIBS have been a long-term partner of the museum. “They’re fantastic,” she said. “They’ve been a super important partner for us.” Payson added that the stories told by RIBS differ based on presentation and range from “African folktales to more contemporary stories.”
The events are dynamic and allow for interaction between children and storytellers, which Payson said helps kids to “start thinking about their own stories in relation to what they heard.”
The museum also hosts a yearly play entitled “MLK: Amazing Grace,” which tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.
Payson also highlighted the museum’s “playful practicum” program that “trains teachers on how to use play to connect younger students to their curriculums.” She explained that “it’s not a lesson on ‘here’s the history of Martin Luther King,’ but instead it’s on ‘how do you define yourself and how you define someone you admire?’” The lesson plans, which are written by trained educators, are free for teachers of kindergarten to fourth grade classes to access.
The museum emphasizes equity and accessibility to all communities throughout the year, according to Payson. “It (is) very important to me to work on programs that allow people access to museums, who might not have ever thought (museums) were there for them,” she said. According to the museum’s website, 40% of its budget goes towards “welcoming one-third of the Museum’s total audience free of charge or at greatly reduced rates through a variety of outreach programs.”
Washington Park Library
"The Washington Park Library hosted a photography exhibit called “The Contributors” Feb. 7-28 which featured work by artist Rachel Briggs. According to Library Manager Amy Rosa, the exhibit highlights lesser-known Black historical figures who have had profound impacts on society, such as singer Baby Esther, mathematician Gladys West and theoretical physicist Shirley Ann Jackson. Briggs created the exhibit because she “wanted to empower children instead of showing them the side of Black history that’s always oppressive or upsetting,” Rosa said.
The exhibit consists of photographs of Briggs and her children dressed up as the aforementioned individuals. The kickoff program for the exhibit involved a poetry reading and the event ended with a dress-up show and tell in which kids could pick a person they found inspiring and dress up as that person. The “interactive art exhibit … is (Briggs’s) attempt to honor, educate and inspire youth,” Rosa said.
Rosa added that the library also hosts a "community reads" program that features a diverse selection of books and authors. “There’s so much diversity in Providence … you (can) reach out and represent so many different groups and … pull in all these local people, authors, performers,” she explained.
Mount Pleasant Library
The Mount Pleasant Library is currently hosting a photography exhibit by Dee Speaks focused on Black life in Providence. The exhibition is part of a rotating art gallery at the library, according to Systems Coordinator Dhana Whiteing, and the library will host a conversation with Speaks on March 7th.
The library will also host a lecture by Stokes on the contradictions of American history, religious freedom and slavery in colonial Rhode Island March 22.
Outside of Black History Month, the library also hosts a regular book club where members read books by authors of color with people from a variety of diverse backgrounds, Whiteing said. The library also recently started a textured hair club that allows people to come together and talk about their natural hair, she added.
Whiteing emphasized that the library’s focus on highlighting Black stories and heritage extends beyond February: “Black history all throughout the year.”