Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau

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Providence Personalities: Early Black History

Thomas Howland
Thomas Howland

Thomas Howland was the first Black man elected to public office in Providence in 1857. He worked as a grocer and stevedore but was denied a United States passport immediately after the Dred Scott decision. He left Providence for Liberia due to this discrimination.

Early Black History
Cudge Brown

Cudge Brown was enslaved by Moses Brown and then manumitted by Brown in 1768. He married freedwoman Phillis, and they later raised a family on Olney Street. He grew a garden that was passed down for generations and worked as a teamster, carting materials all over Providence and beyond.

West Side Historic Photo
William J. Brown

William J. Brown was born free in 1814, grandson of Cudge and part of the extended Brown family of enslaved and freed people. He was a keen observer who knew the Black community well. He worked as a shoemaker and minister, and in 1883 wrote a book, “The Life of William J. Brown,” about his experiences.

Stephen Hopkins House
St. Jago Hopkins

St. Jago Hopkins grew up enslaved in the Stephen Hopkins household. He was manumitted in 1772 and worked as a rigger. He married Rose King in 1778 and later a woman named Abigail, with whom he bought a house in 1789. He had five surviving children: Samuel, Amos, Rosannah, Elizabeth and Sally.

Elleanor Eldridge
Elleanor Eldridge

Elleanor Eldridge was a free Black and Narragansett woman born in 1794 with an entrepreneurial spirit. She owned a home on Spring Street, which was taken from her, but she sued to get it back. To help fund her legal fight to regain the lost property, she worked with author Frances McDougall in 1843 to pen “Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge,” recounting her life. She died in 1862.

North Burial Ground
Emmanuel “Manna” Bernoon

Emmanuel “Manna” Bernoon and his mother, Amey, were enslaved by the Gabriel Bernon family. After manumission in 1736, Manna founded and ran the first Oyster and Ale House in Providence on Towne Street (now South Main Street) near the working waterfront. He lived with his wife Mary, a washerwoman, in their own home on Stampers Street. At the time of his death, he had an eclectic inventory of clothing and objects. He died in 1769 and was buried in North Burial Ground.

George Henry
George Henry

George Henry was born into slavery in 1819 in Virginia but escaped to Providence. A strategic thinker and skilled mariner, he was an entrepreneur, a community leader and sexton at St. Stephen’s Church; worked for school integration; and wrote a memoir, “Life of George Henry.”

Stephen Hopkins House
Shoemaker Family

When Jacob Shoemaker died without a will and no heirs in 1774, the six people he had enslaved became the property of Providence. Listed as “Shoemaker’s Negroes” in the census, the reality is that despite the law, Thomas, Phebe and their four children were not property but people. They were freed by Providence on the condition that their labor was not needed to pay their enslaver’s debts. (It wasn’t.) Thomas helped to build Market House.

Stephen Hopkins House
Fibba Brown

Fibba Brown was an enslaved servant of Stephen Hopkins. She lived and worked in his house for many years. Waking early, she prepared meals, kept the fires burning, cleaned the house and cared for the Hopkins family, as well as her own children. She was finally freed and joined the Olney Street household of her husband Bonner Brown. She died in her 90s in 1820.

Brown University
Pero Paget

Pero Paget was a laborer and stonemason enslaved by Henry Paget. He contributed skilled labor to buildings throughout Providence, including Market House and Brown’s University Hall, as well as bridges and roads. He died in 1780 at age 72 and was buried in North Burial Ground.