There are many things that people don’t know about the country’s smallest state. There is one area code. It’s called Rhode Island, but there are 30 islands in the state. There were more than 1,000 slave ships that came through Rhode Island, many documented in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. There is jazz at the new Yoleni’s on Tuesday nights with Mibbit Threats. There is the Michael Van Leesten Pedestrian Bridge. There have been 25 annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry events.
And there is Stages of Freedom.
Teachers, scholars, students, humanitarians, activists, writers: Take note.
Like many gems, knowledge about Stages of Freedom often travels by word of mouth. A time saver for the curious is to ask what Stages of Freedom is not.
Stages of Freedom’s offerings are breathtaking. It encompasses a book store (10 Westminster), a museum that has on display “Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge” and “Rare Letter from John Brown regarding the sale of Slaves,” an event space featuring “Freedom Factor,” live performances, youth empowerment workshops, historical walking tours, swimming lessons for youth, events celebrating our shared history, speaking programs, exhibits on black life and culture, concerts, bow-tying workshops, tea parties, and free swimming lessons for the luckiest. The list goes on.
There is a packed schedule on their Facebook page, including this Saturday’s Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine. They are justifiably proud of the 5th annual And Still I Rise, which happens at the First Baptist Church in America. Some will attend not because they know it is a tribute to Maya Angelou and more by great Rhode Island women, but for an excuse to get an inside glimpse of this gorgeous landmark. This church and meeting house was founded in 1638 by Roger Williams, built in 1774, and became a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
A brilliant event graced this space on February 23. It was called Let Justice Roll: An Original Cantata Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr by Mark Miller. There couldn’t have been a more beautiful setting for the power and dignity that ignited Benefit Street in Providence that day. The light cascaded upon the musicians, choir and presenters like heaven was illuminating history. Young people greeted hundreds of people as they entered the establishment with unforced manners and authentic kindness. There was celebration in the air, and the seats were comfy.
Ray Rickman, executive director of Stages of Freedom, delivered a gracious welcome, qualifying that he tried not to produce the event because, as he explained, the organization is preoccupied with raising one million dollars to sustain free swimming lessons for Rhode Island youth. He talked about bow ties. He spoke of tea parties and the importance of teaching youth specific skill sets.
Thank goodness the lyrics for “Birmingham Sunday” by Richard Farina were in the program to distract the weeping listener, or rather, to clarify to the less versed appreciator the depth of the sentiments. The sheer subject matter of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls and injured 22 others was tear jerking. The dynamic delivery by Becky Bass, Stephen Martorella, Geoffe Greene and the absolute angelic choir transcended truth. When a full congregation joins together and looks in the same direction, art happens. Miracles happen. History is revered.
From 1963, The Letter from Birmingham Jail was delivered by a diverse 10 presenters, including Stages of Freedom program director Robb Dimmick, Rhode Island icon Dr. Rose Weaver, Robert DiMuccio (chairman, president and CEO of Amica Mutual Insurance Company) and Darius Henderson Jr. (a student at Jacqueline Walsh School for the Arts). The letter, a major artifact from the Civil Rights Movement, stands out with some of the most famous Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
On this day, because of the stellar lineup and placement of the readers in the presentation, King’s reference to explaining the atrocity of racism to his own children let the bells of sin ring. Channeling the deep well of injustice, Rose Weaver read how Dr. King had to explain to his 6-year-old daughter “… why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television…Funtown is closed to colored children.” A father tries to explain while a Civil Rights Leader attempts to school his own oppressors.
Stages of Freedom is a goldmine of opportunity. For more information, visit its Facebook page, go to stagesoffreedom.org, or visit its museum and store. Or simply donate. Stages of Freedom has announced plans to share video of Let Justice Roll.