Historical Society talk to shed light on Black and Native histories on Block Island

Thu, 09/17/2020 - 5:15pm
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Cultural and civic landmarks on Block Island tell the visitor and resident that the island is 359 years old; that it was “settled” in 1661 by a group of families, all with familiar European names. Anniversaries and events have been organized around that year, and the names of the “founding families” of Block Island are literally etched in stone.

But the history of this island is far older, far more complicated, and, in many ways, far more obscured. What happened in 1661, however, directly correlates to what happened to the native people, the Manisseans, who were here long before 1661, and who are still here today. And — has the histories of the island’s Black and enslaved population been fully explored?

These topics, and others, will be discussed at the Block Island Historical Society’s 2020 Annual Meeting on Sunday, Sept. 20 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Attendees can participate on Zoom. (us02web.zoom.us/j/89695842418). A recording of the meeting will be posted at blockislandhistorical.org.

Block Island Historical Society Board member Sue Hagedorn said she was motivated by the death of George Floyd — an event that has sparked national protests and strengthened the national and global Black Lives Matter movement — and asked herself “what community am I involved in where there is a history of Black and Indigenous peoples? And of course that was Block Island. So I started asking questions, and here we are.”

The talk will be facilitated by Maryann Gobern Mathews, Director of the Manisses Tribal Council.

“In 2015, I decided I needed to be a little more formal in finding information on our tribal history on the island, and digging into town records and, doing as much familial history as I can, created the Manisses Tribal Council,” said Mathews. “The intent was to create a repository, and revisit some of the cultural history of the natives on the island and to document that. Recently, we included in this discussion the slaves and Black lives on Block Island.”

Also participating in the discussion will be Amelia Moore, PhD, and Jessica Frazier, PhD, of the University of Rhode Island. Moore said she became involved in this research a couple of years ago after she met Mathews “happily coincidentally” on the Block Island Ferry. They talked of Mathews’ family history on the island and both sensed a desire to delve more deeply into it. Moore then asked her colleague Frazier — they are both in the Marine Affairs department at the University of Rhode Island — to participate.

All three are currently curating a traveling exhibit of the history of the native and Black histories of Block Island, one they hope will come to Block Island then go on tour. They hope to gather information and artifacts that can be used in the exhibit at the annual meeting on Sept. 20.

“We are thrilled to have an annual lecture that is facilitated by Maryann Mathews and Amelia Moore and Jessie Frazier. We are thrilled to be able to address what really is a kind of history that is not always addressed on Block Island. The discussion of the peoples that have been out here throughout our history. It’s an overdue reckoning,” said Hagedorn, to “hear about and pay attention to our original history — a history that continues. It’s not just that oh, the people that were here.”

“Absolutely,” said Mathews, who said she will be talking about the current and past histories of her own family and to point out “information that may not be so obvious to folks.”

“The title of the talk is ‘Recognizing Black and Native Histories on Block Island,’” said Frazier, “and the subtitle being ‘Public Memory, Place and Belonging.’ So what we’ll be talking a bit about is what the public memory is on Block Island and where Native and Black histories fit and where they don’t fit and where they are often absent. We don’t see them on a lot of the plaques on the island and things like that. We’ll be talking about that, and the history of that omission, the history of that erasure, and where that comes from. Also we’ll be showing more of the actual history of Black and Native histories on Block Island since the European settlement and what’s happened since the 17th century.”

Moore said that these kinds of discussions have been spurred on by the “unrest of the moment” and that the histories of Native and Black people on Block Island and other places have not been talked about “because it was considered to be unpleasant or distasteful or not polite to talk about. We’re having a whole transformation on the way we want to relate to history and the past, and getting rid of those more antiquated ideas about what is not appropriate to talk about in a public space. We’re hoping that this project and the relationship with the Block Island Historical Society can be a productive one in which everyone can participate.”

Moore also said they hoped that the traveling exhibit they are putting together will “become a community project. We’re hoping to bring people out of the woodwork with old boxes of stuff, and any stories that they heard from their grandmother.”