Repaving History

It’s 1875, a year before Edward Mitchell Bannister becomes the first Black painter to win a nationally recognized award. He and his wife Christiana Carteaux Bannister are taking a slow stroll down Westminster St. towards the bridge crossing the Woonasquatucket River. They are coming from her salon, where she operates as a successful “hair-doctress” for wealthy, white women of Providence.

Edward and Christiana took this walk at the end of every workday. Edward would slip a paint-stained hand into the scissor-fatigued fingers of his wife as they walked to their favorite bench on the river and sat overlooking the cold, gray bricks of the city’s silhouette. Sometimes Edward would bring his sketchbook, Christiana would pose, and he’d trace her lovely features. Other times they sat, as couples do, and let out exasperated sighs; falling into each other to complain, laugh, and joke about their days. On this particularly chilly March day, they sat clouded in a storm of Edward’s anxious doubt. Christiana listened to his concerns – he would not be recognized as a Black artist; he would never make it in a world that worked tirelessly to assure his downfall. As he talked, he melted into her supportive gaze – the look of a tenacious, intelligent woman with eyes that challenged the obstacles they faced and said, “Watch me.” Edward fell deeper in love; thinking, “Without her, I will be nothing.”

148 years later Ray Rickman leads a tour group to the same bridge. “I think it’s so cool you’re standing where the Bannisters stood,” Rickman says. Rickman is donning a long, wool trench coat, baggy black trousers, and a funky knit hat.

Rickman has been a civil rights activist his whole life. When he was 16 he marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and James Meredith in the 1966 March Against Fear, a march that culminated in his arrest and battery in a Mississippi jail cell. He worked alongside Rosa Parks as chief of staff for John Conyers, headed the Providence Human Relations Commission in 1979, was president of the RI American Civil Liberties Union and deputy secretary of state and state rep in the 80s, founded Shape Up RI, and now runs the award-winning non-profit, Stages of Freedom, which aims to tackle systematic problems in cultural and racial divides, such as providing free swimming lessons for Black children and leading walking tours that educate about the racism in RI history.

Rickman speaks vehemently on his mission for Stages of Freedom. “The average Rhode Islander does not know the state’s slave history – that is on purpose. All the wealth these families have, come from slavery, even Slater Mill money came from slavery. The creation of the Industrial Revolution would not have happened in RI without slavery. We can’t fix our problems unless we acknowledge the platform on which we stand. This is a racist state. We’re trying, here’s the history, learn from it, do something.”

By creating walking tours, such as the Bannisters’, Rickman illuminates a part of history that is rarely seen. Edward and Christiana Bannister were prominent figures in abolition and the culture of the 19th century, but rarely mentioned. Edward more so than Christiana because, as Rickman expresses, America is a “sexist, sexist society.” Edward was a Black man, but Christiana had the layered marginalized identities of being a Black woman. Rickman is careful to stress the importance of Christiana’s career at the salon. Without the expansive revenue she earned, she wouldn’t have been able to support Edward’s unprofitable career as an artist. Thanks to her financial support, Edward could pursue his career as an artist, secure his legacy, and pave the way for undervalued Black artists after him. Rickman is exuberant about this connection, “This tour is joyous, it is a celebration of the life of these two people.”

Rickman fought and won a fight to change a street sign that once memorialized the name of a slave owner, to instead read: Bannister. The sign sits crooked on a steel metal pole, bright green against the clouded sky. A long, dry finger peaks out from Rickman’s wooly coat, as we all turn to follow its point. “PVD has changed two street names since ‘89. One of them was Mussolini.”

On the placement of a statue on the bench that will be dedicated to the Bannisters, Rickman elaborates “they are engaged to get something out of the person. What I want for Christiana is for people to see her and see ‘she did that’ and think ‘I can do something.’” The statue is being made by Gage M. Prentiss, the pictures he showed me of its progress are breathtaking and intricate. Rickman warns against its placement on a pedestal because he wants it to be something you interact with, to emphasize he points up to the sky. I have to focus my eyes above the tree line to see what he’s pointing at, and once I see it, I get it. “I bet you didn’t notice that?” He points to the immense cylinder sticking out of the ground, a WWI monument in Providence’s Memorial Park. He is right, I didn’t notice it. What I noticed was the bench where Rickman stood, and where Bannister would soon sit.

Rickman, when not carrying a blazing torch through the cavernous corners of RI’s history, goes to visit Dunkin’ Donuts, which has a harrowing population of homeless people out front. “They tell me they’re hungry, I say, “Come on in.” And I buy them whatever they want.” His non-profit funds this. “It’s just $5 to buy a couple donuts and a small coffee. We do a lot of stuff like that. You’d think these folks have the basics, but they don’t. I wish I ruled the world. It is really horrible we don’t treat them better.”

Rickman holds a heavy weight on his shoulders. In order to keep sane he listens to music when he gets to his office every morning at 6am. “I play the Negro National Anthem. When something isn’t going right – which is every other thing I’m working on – I close my eyes for 90 seconds and listen to the music and then I start again. Especially Diana Ross’ ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.’ It works, it cheers me.”

We walk past the Providence Athenaeum. The fountain in front is from 1876, and it is rumored that if you drink from it every day you get an extra day of life. Rickman jokes he used to drink from it every morning; he’s not sure if it’s working, but I am. What Rickman is doing is not ethereal, it will not fade away, it will sit as immortalized as Bannister on that great bench of time.