Imagine the Fox Point waterfront in the 1940s. Cargo ships lined up to get into crowded docks. Longshoremen bustled along the busy quays. Crowds waited to welcome packet ships bringing new immigrants and news from Cape Verde.
Many of the longshoremen who worked the docks had themselves come into this port on the packet boats. Until the 1950s, most of the packet boats were repurposed schooners and aging whalers. Crewed by skilled seamen, these vessels made regular trips between American ports and the islands of Cape Verde off the African coast, transporting people, letters, food, and freight.
Cape Verdean immigration to Providence, and greater New England, began the early nineteenth century, when men from the islands were recruited by whaling companies looking for good seamen and inexpensive labor. By the early twentieth century, Portugal’s oppressive colonial rule of the islands, combined with drought and starvation, forced families to consider leaving Cape Verde. Many immigrants moved to Providence and New Bedford, joining family members and friends already in the United States.
The waterfront neighborhood of Fox Point, bounded to the north by Power Street, became the heart of Cape Verdean Rhode Island until the late twentieth century. Today, some Cape Verdeans still live in the area, but most were forced to relocate as urban renewal projects dramatically changed the neighborhood. Beginning in the 1950s, Brown University also bought and developed land in the neighborhood; the ensuing gentrification made it prohibitively expensive for working class families to live there.
At the same time that longtime Fox Point residents were being forced to move elsewhere, the Fox Point docks were also changing. After World War II, “containerization,” the increasing use of shipping containers, drastically decreased the numbers of jobs available on the docks. Many longshoremen actively resisted the changes. In 1971, a historic strike on the west coast shut down the ports for 130 days. The Cape Verdean longshoremen who worked in Fox Point were members of Local 1329 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, the first labor union in the United States founded by Cape Verdeans. Local 1329 played an important role in the national labor union and in the lives of the Cape Verdean longshoremen and their families. Ultimately, resistance to automation was not successful and by the end of the twentieth century almost ninety percent of longshoremen jobs had been lost to automation.
These docks are filled with the memories of work, change and resistance, and the journeys of people and things from Cape Verde to Providence. Though the Cape Verdean community is no longer concentrated in Fox Point, more Cape Verdeans still live in Massachusetts and Rhode Island than anywhere else except Cape Verde. Many of them still gather each year in India Point Park to celebrate the islands’ independence from Portugal on July 5th, a day filled with festivities, educational events, and food.