What Stories Are Missing From Black History – and How Should We Tell Them?
February is Black History Month, and in this episode of “Trending Globally,” you’ll hear from two scholars at Brown who are bringing to light overlooked aspects of the Black experience in America.
In the first half of the episode, Mack Scott, a visiting professor at Brown’s Center for Slavery and Justice, talks with Dan Richards about the complex relationship between Rhode Island’s Narragansett Nation and the state’s Black communities in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s a vivid example of how America’s history of anti-Black racism is deeply intertwined with the history of America’s indigenous communities.
In the second half, Watson Senior Fellow Geri Augusto talks about a project she’s working on to uncover, preserve, and transmit the history of one of the Civil Rights movement’s most important and unique organizations – the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Geri is working with scholars and activists to bring this history to life and to find new, more inclusive ways to help people share their stories on their own terms.
[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. February is Black History Month. And on this episode, we're going to explore work that two scholars at Brown are doing to bring to light overlooked aspects of the Black experience in America.
In the second half of the episode, you'll hear about a new project that's experimenting with how to archive and share the history of one of the civil rights movement's most important organizations. But to start, we have a story from an earlier moment in American history. So the state of Rhode Island prides itself on its history as a particularly enlightened and freedom loving place.
It was founded by Roger Williams on principles of religious freedom-- well, sort of-- and relative peace and goodwill between his colony and the Narragansett people who called the state at home. But many facts are ignored in this narrative, including, of course, gradually dispossessing the Narragansett people of their land. This framing also sidesteps the very real ways that Rhode Islanders participated in slavery throughout America's early history.
And one scholar at Brown is working to look at both of these stories and the complex relationship between the two. In the process, he's showing how Rhode Island's history of anti-Black racism and the struggles to overcome it can't be understood without understanding more of the history of the Narragansett nation.
MACK SCOTT: My name is Mack Scott, and I am a member of the Narragansett nation. I'm also a visiting assistant professor here at Brown in the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.
DAN RICHARDS: I started by asking Mack to explain a little bit about Rhode Island's outsized role in America's history of slavery. Here's Mack.
MACK SCOTT: In her book, Dark World, the scholar, Christy Clark-Pujara gives us a pretty good accounting of how vital slavery and the slave trade was for Rhode Islanders. Rhode Island really dominated the American version of the transatlantic slave trade with approximately 70% of the voyages coming from Rhode Island. Moses Brown's Mills in Pawtucket manufactured what was called Negro cloth, the coarse clothing worn by enslaved persons in the mid-Atlantic in the South.
Like Brown, many Rhode Islanders participated and profited directly from the slave trade by sending the cod that they caught, the hogs that they raised, the vegetables that they grew South to subsidize the plantation system's monocrop economy. This sectional interdependence was what the Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner referred to as an hollowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.
DAN RICHARDS: But it wasn't just a financial dependence that Rhode Island had on slavery. As Mack explains, there were also a not insignificant number of enslaved people in Rhode Island.
MACK SCOTT: By Seventeen Fifty, Rhode Island held the highest percentage of enslaved persons in New England. About 1/10 of the population consisted of enslaved persons.
DAN RICHARDS: Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves in Rhode Island were gradually freed. And slavery was officially abolished around Eighteen Forty. But as that gradual and then official abolition took hold over the course of the 19th century--
MACK SCOTT: Rhode Islanders underwent a sort of historical amnesia as they reimagined themselves to have always been a freedom loving fair dealing people with little ties, if any at all, to slavery.
But all of this reinvention stood in juxtaposition to the stark reality that there was a considerable number, remember, about 10% of the population of persons who were formerly enslaved in a society that was now supposed to have always been free. Their presence was really grating. It was a reminder that the story that Rhode Islanders and New Englanders told themselves about who they were was not true.
DAN RICHARDS: And how did white Rhode Islanders end up dealing with that grating fact?
MACK SCOTT: At first, we see Rhode Islanders attempt to distance themselves from that history by driving people of African descent and other people deemed undesirable, including Indigenous peoples, into segregated enclaves as a kind of out of sight, out of mind solution. Some Rhode Islanders actually attempted to physically remove Black people from their community.
This is what happened in Eighteen Twenty-Four and Eighteen Thirty-One when rioters literally tore down the houses of formerly enslaved peoples and carried the boards away, so that the inhabitants would be forced to leave. There's a story from this time of the family that after their home had been destroyed, they spent the winter in their basement among the rubble as an act of defiance.
DAN RICHARDS: Something you've written about is the role that Narragansett people played in this tension. What role did they play in this period of tension?
MACK SCOTT: You got to remember at this time, both of these communities are marginalized. They're going to be in the same locations, the same communities as far as being segregated into those places. They're going to be doing domestic labor, farm labor in the same households. So there's lots of interaction between these two groups. Naturally, there's going to be some relationships that form.
DAN RICHARDS: And as Mack explained, these relationships took a variety of forms. They can't easily be framed as one type of partnership or alliance. Like life, the examples are messy.
MACK SCOTT: Yeah, so I'll give an example. In Seventeen Seventy--
DAN RICHARDS: This was back before slavery was outlawed, but at a time that gradually, some slaves were being freed.
MACK SCOTT: --there was a Narragansett man. His name was William. And he explained that his grandmother had purchased a person of African descent to marry. And then she married him. And the impetus or the motivation for her was that she wanted to live in the manner of white people, that she would be able to benefit from his labor.
DAN RICHARDS: So this was a Narragansett woman who was interested in owning a Black man. But there was also a reason, Mack explained, that a man of African descent at that time might be interested in this arrangement as well.
MACK SCOTT: For African-American men, if they were able to have a relationship and children with the Indigenous woman, then those children would be born free. They would be part of the tribe. At the same time, there's a lot of Indigenous men who are leaving the area. There's not many opportunities, economic opportunities.
Fighting in wars, colonial wars, is an opportunity. Participating on whaling vessels and whaling voyages is an opportunity. So it takes a lot of Indigenous men out of the region. So there's that push to put these two communities together.
DAN RICHARDS: And as Black communities continued to be marginalized by white Rhode Islanders, even after the abolition of slavery, Narragansett controlled parts of the state became a Haven for many Black Rhode Islanders.
MACK SCOTT: Really, this is part of the identity and the community of Indigenous peoples in this region. Adoption into their communities was nothing new. This was not a new thing for the Narragansetts.
DAN RICHARDS: Including, as the Narragansetts saw it, the welcoming in of white Rhode Islanders like Roger Williams centuries before.
MACK SCOTT: This is a long history of taking in different communities and making them part of their community.
DAN RICHARDS: So I wonder then, Mack, as these two communities, as you describe, they both sort of in a somewhat marginalized status also started to form more of a relationship and maybe build communities, build families together. What was the reaction of white Rhode Islanders to that?
MACK SCOTT: Well, we've got to remember that Rhode Island was fully invested in the American slave system. And thus, they were fully invested in the ideology of white supremacy that undergirded that system. Blacks were understood as the lowest of the low. So therefore, many Rhode Islanders saw the unions between Black peoples and Indigenous peoples as a degradation of Native blood.
DAN RICHARDS: So in the view of white Rhode Islanders, the Indigenous people were more highly esteemed than Black people.
MACK SCOTT: Yeah, and I don't want to make it seem like it was a big difference because-- but just on that spectrum, right this whole system that supported and ran off of the idea of the enslavement of Blacks produced this ideology and this anti-Black racism that really infected all aspects. So if there was intermixing-- and there was some, of course. There's intermixing all the way around. This is part of the tradition. It's a part of the history of these people.
Then that's going to be assumed to be this one drop rule. So if you have one drop of Black blood, then you are Black. And that was not just Rhode Island. That's all over the nation.
DAN RICHARDS: For Narragansetts and people of African descent who made families, the primary effect was that it made the Narragansett community more, quote, "Black" in the eyes of white Rhode Islanders, which was a convenient analysis for the state's white people because as Mack explained, white Rhode Islanders had a lot to gain by degrading the status of the Narragansetts in the region.
MACK SCOTT: Rhode Island's history is really complicated when it comes to Indigenous peoples, and land, and the transactions that happened. A lot of places, like Massachusetts in general, if there was a war, you could claim the spoils of war and say, hey, we defeated you in war. This is now our territory, our property. This is the way that things go.
DAN RICHARDS: But between white Rhode Islanders and the Narragansett, there was never really a war like that.
MACK SCOTT: So there's no spoils of war to be had. There's lots of complications about how does land transfer. How do the Narragansetts become dispossessed? So there's extreme motivation to really erase Narragansetts, and their authenticity, and their indigeneity and claim that they are all Black.
DAN RICHARDS: So in terms of what white Rhode Islanders owed to the people who lived here before them?
MACK SCOTT: If there's no Narragansetts, then that's not a question you have to answer.
DAN RICHARDS: What was the public law 800 that was passed sometime in this era as well?
MACK SCOTT: The public law was the act that officially de-tribalized the Narragansetts. And I know that you can't see my air quotes on the podcast. But I say de-tribalized with air quotes because the Narragansetts were never de-tribalized.
But in Eighteen Eighty, the state officially dissolved the tribe as a public entity. When lawmakers penned the act, they wrote, that quote, "the name of the Narragansett tribe now passes from the statute books." They were saying this is it. This is over.
And they justified this by saying that, quote, "the Narragansetts were, quote, "a slender band of Negroes with a slight infusion of Indian blood." And what happens with the public law is that all the land in Rhode Island is freed up from any kind of claims of title and ownership from the Indigenous peoples because now, the Indigenous peoples don't exist, according to Rhode Island. And we see that in Eighteen Eighty where they start to sell the remaining reservation land to white Rhode Islanders.
DAN RICHARDS: What is the status today of the Narragansett nation? Is it federally recognized? Is it still fully recognized by the state?
MACK SCOTT: Yeah. So yes to both the Narragansetts are the state's only federally recognized Indigenous community. But we wouldn't use the term, recognized because we have always been exactly who we said we are. We have always been the hairs of [INAUDIBLE].
It's just that the United States didn't acknowledge this reality until Nineteen Eighty-Three. Therefore, we say that in Nineteen Eighty-Three is when the federal government finally acknowledged the long continuation of our community.
DAN RICHARDS: How do you view the longer lasting effects of the relationship between the Narragansett nation and Rhode Island's Black community? How has that shaped the nation? And what effect has it had in the state more generally, would you say?
MACK SCOTT: There's a lot to that history. There's a time when the Narragansetts are-- because they have Black ancestry, it was used to invalidate their indigeneity. There's some period of some time where there's a drive of Indigenous peoples not to be affiliated with the Black community because then that's challenging their authenticity.
DAN RICHARDS: Despite that, many Narragansetts and Black Rhode Islanders still see their communities as intertwined today.
MACK SCOTT: Those ties remain strong as still a groups that are still contending with social and economic marginalization and inequities that exist. All you really need to do is to look at any social economic measure to realize that white supremacy continues to structure and shape outcomes in Rhode Island.
For example, 80% of the Black population in Rhode Island lives in Providence, Pawtucket, and Cranston. And therefore, for many Rhode Islanders, people of African descent can remain out of sight and out of mind and recalling those segregated enclaves that existed in the early 19th century.
Also, the government to government relationship that exists between the state of Rhode Island and the Narragansett today is among the worst of any state and Indigenous community in the nation. The Narragansett and the state of Rhode Island have been locked in litigation for decades. And it seems to me that the questions of legitimacy and authenticity that inspired the decarbonization effort continues to muddy this relationship.
DAN RICHARDS: It's a history that complicates any of the familiar narratives we have of Black, white, and Indigenous communities. And hopefully, it's a history that can help us see more clearly the origins of so many of the challenges we still face as a country today.
MACK SCOTT: This being the month that we celebrate Black history, I guess I would just like to end with a quote that I think is relevant to the history that we've been talking about from the activist and artist, James Baldwin. "Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced."
DAN RICHARDS: Mack Scott, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally.
MACK SCOTT: Oh, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.
DAN RICHARDS: One challenge is simply excavating these histories and relationships. But that's not the only challenge scholars face. Another is once you have access to these stories, how do you decide the best way to share them?
Someone who's been thinking and working a lot on this question is Watson's senior fellow, Geri Augusto. Geri has been working with activists and scholars on a project to uncover, preserve, and transmit the history of one of the civil rights' movements most important organizations, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, often called SNCC.
[SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK, "AIN'T GOING TO LET NOBODY TURN ME AROUND"] Ain't going to let nobody turn me around.
DAN RICHARDS: That's "Ain't Going to let Nobody Turn me Around," a song that became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. It's sung here by Sweet Honey in the Rock, a group with deep ties to SNCC. Like the original members of Sweet Honey in the Rock, many of the members of SNCC are in their 70s and 80s today.
And Geri and her colleagues are working with many of them to create a firsthand account of the organization and the people that defined it. But from the beginning of this project, they knew they didn't want to just use traditional tools of academia to share and analyze their stories. Instead, this group has found new ways to help these activists tell their story on their own terms.
The SNCC Legacy Project, as it's called, is doing more than preserving history. They're creating a more inclusive model for how to tell these types of stories and are passing along an organizing tradition to a new generation of activists. Geri Augusto, welcome back to Trending Globally.
GERI AUGUSTO: Thank you very much.
DAN RICHARDS: So what was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee?
GERI AUGUSTO: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was one of several civil rights organizations, or as we call them, Southern Freedom movement organizations. In the '60s from about the early to mid '60s up through the '70s, it was the only youth led movement in the civil rights movement.
So you have your NAACP, your CORE, your SCLC of Dr. Martin Luther King. They became active at the same time as all these older people, but they were a student led movement. They organized themselves, founded it. And partly because they were student led, they were always considered the most radical of the civil rights movements of that time.
DAN RICHARDS: So this group was founded in Nineteen Sixty. And over the course of the '60s, they led a variety of really influential nonviolent acts of resistance, sit-ins at segregated restaurants. They launched voter registration drives in the deep South. And they were really influential actors in the civil rights movement. Ultimately, though, they disbanded as an organization in the nineteen-seventies. And so I wonder, when did people start to realize or discuss that it was important to create some sort of historical record of what this group had done?
GERI AUGUSTO: Well, when SNCC disbanded-- we should call it that-- when it was no longer active, the people who were in the movement, who were members of SNCC, carried the SNCC struggle, the lessons, the organizing experience wherever they went. So for example, the ones that I had known as an adolescent who came through my mother and father's home in Dayton, Ohio, where they were activists, slightly older than me, anywhere from five to 10 years older than me, when I went to got to University in Washington DC at Howard University, there they were in Washington DC doing various types of organizing.
And they went on to make contributions singly, collectively in many different areas, in culture, in education, in administration. Some of the ran for political office. So they always say this. We're a band of brothers and sisters. They carried the SNCC lessons, the SNCC organizing practices, the SNCC philosophies about freedom with them. And it's almost like they multiplied, created a network around the country and also within many international ramifications as well.
DAN RICHARDS: And there was an impetus, I believe, if I remember correctly, around the 50th anniversary of the founding of SNCC in Twenty Ten. There was a conference where people wanted to figure out how to think about archiving some of this collective history. What did that ultimately lead to?
GERI AUGUSTO: Well, it was the 50th anniversary at Shaw University, another one of the historically Black universities. And at the 50th, there was such an enthusiastic response from young people who attended the conference and people who hadn't necessarily been in the movement to hear the panels and discussions. And so afterwards, former SNCC veterans decided, you know what?
We need to pass this legacy on. We need to transmit it. Perhaps, I should pause here to say that I was never in SNCC. I've been with this project from the beginning. But when I say SNCC did this and SNCC did that, it's not necessarily me personally. It's me personally on the project, , but not that.
DAN RICHARDS: Now, as Geri explained, normally, a conference at a university might lead to a series of academic papers. But this group wanted something different. They wanted to record, preserve, and transmit these memories and histories, but not just as subjects for some other historian. They wanted to tell this story on their own terms. But what exactly would that look like?
GERI AUGUSTO: We had many, many, many discussions about this because people who are activists are not necessarily best friends with academics. They kind of resent being always the object of study, somebody's book, somebody's article. We heard the, sometimes complaints, a lot of times, just regrets of people who had been in the movement who said, I read these books, and I don't see myself.
Or they don't know about so-and-so. Or they forgot about this or that. So we wanted something that we-- we figured out a phrase to cover it
A lot of people talk about history from below. This isn't really history from below. This is history-- we coined this phrase for ourselves, from the inside out.
We kept the emphasis on A, people who were the actors, themselves, the protagonists of struggle from the inside out. B, we wanted a history that was told very multivocal. So how do you tell a multivocal history? You put the people who were concerned in the room together.
So we're thinking, how do we put people in the room together? And I remember this film, The Fog of War. And it had come out of a critical oral-- something called critical oral history. It actually originates-- I don't know if people know this-- from Brown from out of the Watson Center. The critical oral history method comes from here.
It was about the Cuban Missile Crisis. And they put all these-- as many Cubans as they could find, people from the State Department, people of the Defense Department. Charlie Cobb, who was another well-recognized-- I'll call him a stalwart of SNCC. And I came up with this concept together.
We'll do critical oral history. We'll just adapt it, the principle of shutting in a room, no press, no people running back and forth trying to be cute, no cameras that get in the way, discreet filming, discreet recording. And we'll just put people in the room around the table with light moderation. And there are other elements that go into how we created it.
But primarily with Charlie Cobb, we adapted this critical oral history method, which actually came out of Brown out of the Watson Center to the needs of a civil rights movement or a human rights movement. And that's how we came about it. And now we get requests from all over the world of my community wants to tell its own history in its own way. Will you tell us how to do it? And we do.
DAN RICHARDS: So what are the benefits to having-- because I'm thinking of a more traditional oral history strategy, as I understand it, as maybe something more where it's one on one interviews with a bunch of different people with the idea that collectively, you can take all those stories and learn something bigger than any one person was able to say. But what's the benefit of having all those people in a room together as opposed to talking with them all one on one?
GERI AUGUSTO: Well, oral history, what you describe is the ideal. The person who is interviewing will talk to one person and then another and another. It seldom happens that way.
So what you have is libraries and archives all over the country that have nice collections of oral histories of person A or person B. You don't get the critical mass that you're talking about. I mean, the earnest researcher, I suppose, could say, I'm going to find 50 of these about Freedom Summer in Nineteen Sixty-Four, which is one of the lasting legacies of SNCC, one of the things that's most influential. And you could go to different big American universities and find it or gather it up. And researchers do do that when they're trying to write a book.
But critical oral history-- let's think about the critical aspect. When you get 10, 15-- we never have more than that-- people in a room who were all part of the event or part of the process, their memories are different. Each one has a slightly different memory. You're getting people across the table from each other who are confronting each other.
It doesn't get to fisticuffs or anything. But these are people who have been courageous and outspoken all their lives. And they discuss that same moment, what? You mean that's what you were thinking?
I heard a discussion like that about when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party goes to the Democratic Party Conference in the '60s. And it's really an iconic historical moment. And some of the SNCC organizers were outside on the boardwalk. And some few were inside in the convention center.
And this wasn't the moment of cell phones. They were not in communication with each other. And I listened to a conversation where several activists who were outside with the masses of people and the other two or three-- and all these people are in their early 20s-- are on the inside with these old Democratic Party politicians. And they didn't know what each of them had been going through.
And so having people in the room, you're likely to get unexpected results. You're able to create a history that's not monolithic and monolinear. It also, to be frank, provides a moment for them, which is very important.
These are people-- they're 50 years older-- reliving in a social kind of way. So part of the setup is to make it small, to make the presence of those who are recording unobtrusive. They're trading memories. They're not just tossing out facts.
They're trading memories. And it's that trading of memories and that working through with a light moderation. We have some questions set up beforehand. We get a total transcript, which I doubt if anyone will ever read. It's hundreds of pages. And then we had video filming of parts of the conversation. And all of that is also available through the archive.
DAN RICHARDS: So the archive isn't the only thing the SNCC Legacy Project is creating. You also, among other things, have a project called the Movement History Initiative, which is establishing a sort of intergenerational conversation between SNCC's founding members and that generation and a newer generation of activists. And for listeners who are curious, we'll put links to the project online where you can see all of the different works and collaborations that your group is launching.
But the archive is still a fundamental part of capturing this legacy. And I think has a lot of interesting lessons for people in academic settings. So what can scholars, including also journalists and writers, people who are looking at tell histories and tell stories, what can they learn from what you all have been doing at the SNCC Legacy Project?
GERI AUGUSTO: Well, I think that the perfect example of the lessons is coming up soon. We are working with a group of younger, really young, Black, mostly Black, but let's say Black led social movements and activist movements, which date from the killing of Trayvon Martin. So it's been about a decade.
And those young activists-- we began maybe about two or three years ago, during lockdown years, so that's two years ago. Intergenerational conversations, we call them. And what they told us was we A, we're happy to know about the history in this way. So for us, that's like vindication.
And B, they thought about, we're historical actors too. How would we go about doing a kind of history-- let's call it history of the now, history of the present. And so whatever it is that we did in the way we did it was attractive enough, appealing enough to them that they're having a conversation among themselves 10 years of activism. And it's a critical oral history session.
So they asked us to help design it. And once again, Charlie Cobb and I are going to be the very light touch moderators or facilitators. So I think one of the things is the flexibility of how we're doing it.
It can be done by people who are 20. It could be done by people who are 80. We've had people in Brazil ask me how they could do it. I think we had a group of union organizers in Italy that wrote to us to ask about how to do it. And so I think that it's flexible enough that people who maybe had not thought of themselves at first glance as historical actors, maybe the subject of somebody else's research, but they can see, no, I'm the subject. We're the subject of this research.
DAN RICHARDS: Was there anything about this group, both that it was a group of activists and also that it was predominantly people of color that allowed for this to happen in this particular way or not? I'm just imagining this type of critical oral history, I think, could be applied to any group. I guess, what role maybe did race in the history of racial activism play in this sort of thinking about narratives and histories?
GERI AUGUSTO: Well, as I said, they consider themselves-- and now I'm an adopted one-- a band of brothers and sisters. So these were not people who didn't know each other. These were people who had been together in struggle. They had slept in those houses where they were sleeping down on the floor in the house of a poor sharecropper that might give the one good bed to them.
And the old sharecropper and his wife were sitting on the front porch all night long with a shotgun to make sure that the clan didn't come and get these 19-year-old, as they called them, freedom riders. So more than race, I think it was more the activism and the belief in freedom that made it possible for these people to come together and have the conversation.
DAN RICHARDS: Yeah. Now, that all make sense. I was wondering about the effects of race just thinking about how deep a history there is of Black experiences in America being erased or co-opted that maybe there is a little more opening in understanding of history is a complicated thing to tell. And it can't be told just by one person.
GERI AUGUSTO: I think that the experience of being Black in the United States gives an urgency to history. And you want this history to be told. And now is an important time to probably reiterate that because there are moves afoot to not have this history told as if it's not part of American history.
It's almost central. And so there's a constant urgency to telling this history, to having it interpreted, which interpretation of history doesn't mean everybody agrees. It just means you're got to put it on the table. It's going to be looked at.
Evidence is going to be given. It's going to be discussed. It's going to be taught. It's going to be argued over. But you must do it.
DAN RICHARDS: Geri Augusto, thank you so much for coming on and talking with me for Trending Globally.
GERI AUGUSTO: You're welcome. I enjoyed it.
DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Sam McKeever Holzman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music, by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you like this show, please subscribe to it wherever you listen to podcasts. And leave a rating and review on Apple or Spotify. It really helps others to find us.
You can learn more about the SNCC Legacy Project by following the links in our show notes. We'll also include a link to a recent article by Mack Scott in the Providence Journal about the history of the relationship between Black Rhode Islanders and the Narragansett nation. If you have any feedback for us, or questions, or ideas for topics or guests for an upcoming episode of Trending Globally, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Again, that's all one word, email@example.com. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.