“Through the Wisdom and Knowledge of Dr. Gross”: Stories from Black Life in Rhode Island

A friend of the Providence-based physician Dr. Carl Russell Gross once wrote, “To talk with Dr. Gross on any subject is a thrilling experience. But to talk with him concerning Rhode Island History is to actually be there where the event is occurring. Every Rhode Islander should have the opportunity to see Rhode Island History as it relates to the Black man through the wisdom and knowledge of Dr. Gross.”

This tour, on which you are about to embark, is an opportunity to “be there” experiencing history through the wisdom of Dr. Carl Russell Gross (1888-1971). Throughout his life, Dr. Gross collected materials in service of a book that he was writing on Black history in Rhode Island. He drafted numerous timelines, each containing short notes on people and organizations, which were donated by his niece to Rhode Island College after his death.

The stories on this tour take their inspiration from Dr. Gross’s notes—readers will find an excerpt from his manuscript after each story. Each vignette stands alone, but taken together we get a picture of an interconnected Black community with its members living, learning, and working throughout Rhode Island during the first half of the 20th century.

Note on Terms: We write about local people of African descent who have diverse identities. In consulting source materials that span a century, the terms “Black” and “African American” were both used and not employed as interchangeable. To the best of our ability, our uses here reflect either how subjects referred to themselves; their identities as native-born and descendants of enslaved Africans under American slavery, or African American; their identities as people of African descent who are not African American, or Black; or their bi- or multi-raciality. 7/13/2021

Excitement buzzed in the lecture hall at the opening of the 21st Annual Exhibition of the Rhode Island School of Design. Members of the RISD class of 1900 were awarded their diplomas, while other students received prizes. Among the award recipients was young Thomas R. Lewis (1880-1958), a student…
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For the better part of the 20th century, the Occomy family called 85 John Street their home. Walter Calvert Occomy and Nellie White Occomy, noted humanitarians and members of the city’s Black churches, purchased the house in 1914 and it was a hub of academic and civic pursuits. Looking back at the…
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In a 1936 Providence Journal exhibition review, the work of college student Mary Howard (1908-2011) fascinated art critic Robert Wheeler. He wrote, “It will be a strange thing if this young artist doesn’t go on a long journey. There is a rough vigor in everything she paints.” With a life spanning…
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It was Monday, April 23, 1928. The Providence Public School Committee was holding its regular meeting at Central Fire Station on the eastern edge of Burnside Park. The room was packed. Charity Bailey (1904-1978), an accomplished pianist and recent graduate of Rhode Island College of Education, was…
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This tour was supported by a major grant from the Rhode Island College Committee for Faculty Scholarship and Development. Rhode Island College students in “First Year Seminar 100: Raid the Collections” (Fall 2020) conducted preliminary research. The curators wish to thank Wilmar Jennings, Rev. Dr. Julianne Hanavan, Molly Bruce Patterson, Kieran Ayton, Julia Renaud, and Stephen Crocker for their contributions to the project.