“To Henry Paget Esq. for 29 Days Work of Pero”

Pero, slave. Job, Native American. Mingow, free African. Have you heard about these men on the admissions tour? These individuals were three of at least four slave laborers who built University Hall, then called the College Edifice for the College of Rhode Island, but they aren’t often discussed.

While Pero was forced to work, his owner, Henry Paget Esquire, received his pay. Paget was a wealthy merchant who used to live in an elaborate home on South Main Street where the Providence County Courthouse currently stands. The ledgers from Nicholas Brown and Co. that document their names are uncomfortable yet critical reminders of Brown’s ties to the institution of slavery.

Slavery greatly contributed to New England’s economy for 150 years, yet it is often silenced in the narrative of the region’s past, as white northerners are often morally elevated and positioned in direct contrast to whites in the South. Divorcing New England from the legacies of slavery leads to a harmful erasure of blacks not only in the story of New England in the 18th century but also in present-day society. Click on this video from the University of Minnesota to learn more about historical trauma and why the past informs the present.

Even though the word “slave” was never used, naming conventions in the ledgers strongly suggest that at least four slaves were indeed used to build University Hall. Because last names were seen as depicting status and potentially legal standing as a free person, we can conclude that names with last names were primarily whites, and names without last names were slaves. In addition, to further distinguish them from whites, slave owners gave African American slaves particular names. They often were classical names such as Caesar or Jupiter, names derived from African words, or mocking titles such as Prince or Duchess. Furthermore, racial descriptors such as “negro” were sometimes used to identify workers. And lastly, the ledgers reveal that slaves’ wages were diverted to their white owners. For example, one entry from February 8, 1771 reads: “10 days work of Mary Young’s Negro Man at 3 shillings, to her account.”

Through the stripping of a last name, special names to make their status even more inferior than whites, and the diversion of wages, the slaves who built University Hall were deeply deprived of their personhood on many levels. This exhibition continues the conversations about Brown’s ties to the slave trade. Pick up a copy of the official report and take the opportunity to see the ledgers in person in the University Archives at the John Hay Library.

Video

Viewing the real slave ledgers at the Hay Library
I had the opportunity to view and handle the actual ledgers in the Hay Library. Touching these important documents in person was a near magical experience, as it connected me to history in a way that merely viewing images online could not accomplish....
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1 Prospect St. Providence, RI 02912 ~ Walk inside University Hall towards the President’s Office to view the exhibit entitled: Hidden in Plain Sight: American Slavery and the University.