Underground Railroad: An alternate view of the abolitionist movement

“[I] kept on getting up.

A little slower.

And a lot more deadly.”


-Assata Shakur

The Underground Railroad is traditionally taught to be an early 19th century clandestine network of white abolitionist and free Negroes who used various modes of transport to successfully whisk away countless numbers of enslaved Africans from their unsuspecting slave masters. This version of the abolitionist movement is the most palatable entry point for white audiences to board the so-called freedom train.

It is often the case that black movements toward freedom are best understood, and more broadly accepted, when they are accompanied by leading white hero-like figures and groups who serve to legitimate black freedom. But what about black marronage? Emancipation is what some powerful individual or institution does for you, and it allows the emancipator to abscond with the narrative credentials for your freedom. However, as black people, our most sustainable freedom comes when we liberate ourselves. 

Beginning in the early 18th century Rhode Island’s merchant-class, primarily situated in Providence, Newport, Narragansett, and Bristol, quickly became central figures in the North American slave trade. After the American Revolution, Rhode Islanders assembled the most dominant slave trading business alliance in American History. Historian Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, in her ground-breaking book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, states:

“During the colonial period in total, Rhode Islanders sent 514 slave ships to the coast of West Africa, while the rest of the colonist [combined] sent just 189.”

Jay Coughtry, a noted scholar of Rhode Island slave trading, observed that “In Rhode Island … the fortunes of individual merchants and whole towns were intimately bound up in the slave trade.” One cannot understand the economic and political history of Rhode Island without  contextualizing slave trading as the primary business engine of the colony, and later of the state. “From 1725 to 1807,” Coughtry continues, “what has been called the ‘American slave trade’ might better be termed the ‘Rhode Island slave trade.’” By 1807, the moment of congressional abolition of the importation of slaves, Rhode Island merchants were responsible for 934 Atlantic slave crossings. 

Rhode Island is undeniably credited with being a central player in the creation of the American slave society. But the most prominent feature of a slave society — or in our case, a slave state — is not the intergenerational white wealth and power it managed. Rather it is the transformative curation of movements toward freedom by those Africans shackled by an endless relation of exploitation. These stories of freedom do not often situate themselves within a neat narrative of abolitionist practice. 

“In 1703,” Clark-Pujara writes, “the Rhode Island General Assembly wrote slavery and racism into law, ‘“If any negroes or Indians either freemen, servants, or slaves, do walk in the street of the town of Newport, or any other town in this Collony, after nine of the clock of the night, without a certificate from their masters, or some English person of said family with them, or some lawfull excuse for the same, that it shall be lawfull for any person to take them up and deliver them to a Constable.’”

Translation: After nine o’clock at night, all white folks became the police. Here we can observe the legal legitimization of white supremacist practice in Rhode Island. By the time the nation arrives at the Fugitive Slave Act (a law which essentially empowered federal agents to compel white people to participate in the capture of escaped slaves, or free black people alleged to be so, and provided a penalty upon their refusal), one can imagine a clear ideological genealogy of antiblackness forming in the Ocean State.

As all-encompassing as slavery was in Rhode Island, it could not undermine the ways in which free and enslaved Africans curated movements toward freedom. Sometimes that freedom was love:

Maroca was a proud African woman. She was enslaved on a farm in Narragansett, but she still dreamed of freedom … everyday. Part of her freedom dream was love. Although her master, James MacSparran, a minister, circumscribed her body, she refused to allow him to curtail her will to love. So, against MacSparran’s vile wishes she continued to sneak away to visit her lover, Mingo, another enslaved African who lived on a neighboring farm. Resisting her master’s order to end the relationship Maroca and Mingo did the unthinkable — they brought forth black life in the very midst of ordained death. They had not one, but two children together. This was her love marronage. MacSparran had seen enough. He devised a plan to both punish Maroca and turn a profit. He sold her youngest child.

The next time you find yourself in Narragansett, if it rains, do not reach for your umbrella. Instead, allow Maroca’s tears to wash over you.