Stages of Freedom exhibit explores history of the black church in Rhode Island

Stages of Freedom exhibit explores history of the black church in Rhode Island

Stages of Freedom program director Robb Dimmick is the curator of Do Lord Remember Me: A History of the Black Church in Rhode Island. He worked alongside Stages of Freedom Executive Director Ray Rickman. (Breeze photo by Jackie Roman)

SMITHFIELD – “This is just one part of overlooked history,” Robb Dimmick, program director of the nonprofit Stages for Freedom said, prior to the unveiling of an exhibit chronicling the history of the black church in Rhode Island.

Dimmick appeared alongside Stages of Freedom Executive Director Ray Rickman during the Oct. 23 event at Bryant University’s Machtley Interfaith Center.

The seven-panel exhibit, which Dimmick spent a year researching, tells the stories of local leaders in the black church and includes historic photographs and documentation.

Residents of the Blackstone Valley may have meandered past a historic black church in Pawtucket or Woonsocket without even realizing it.

“People are impressed with the depth of the story and the breadth of the story,” Dimmick said. “And most of these robust church communities started either in a house or a room.”

Part of the exhibit describes how leaders in the black church used their platforms to petition for social equality.

Alexander Crummell, for example, used his position as minister of Christ Church in Providence to lobby for the right to vote.

Upon hearing that rebel Thomas Dorr was seeking to extend suffrage to the working class in 1842, but excluding blacks, Crummell penned a bold letter.

“We claim ... that to deprive the colored people of this state of the immunities of citizenship, on account of the color of the skin, a matter over which they have no control, is anti-republican; and against such a procedure we enter our solemn protest,” he wrote.

Dimmick also obtained a photograph of a 1909 medallion from the Watchman Industrial School, a Freewill Baptist institution run by Rev. Dr. William Holland. The medallion is engraved with the words “To help the needy without creed or color.”

The school was based on Booker T. Washington’s principles and started in Providence in 1908, before moving to North Scituate in 1923.

The Scituate landmark, set back from West Greenville Road on Institute Lane, is listed as “the most important building in Scituate” in the “Historic and Architectural Resources of Scituate, R.I.” by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission.

There’s plenty of history to be found in Pawtucket, too.

Dimmick obtained a copy of a 1904 bank note, which gave $1,500 to pay for the Union Baptist Church in Pawtucket, still standing today.

There’s also a photo of a brochure handed out at the church, when it hosted the Colored Women’s Clubs ninth annual conference on Oct. 22, 1911.

Saint James Baptist Church at 340 South Main St. in Woonsocket has a rich history in Rhode Islan’s black community as well.

It was first founded in 1953 on River Street, before a growing congregation forced it to move to Prospect Street in 1955 and then Blackstone Street in 1957.

It was Rev. Hugh McGhee who orchestrated the purchase of Saint James’ current location, which has since been outfitted with a baptismal pool and a new organ.

“It is a love affair with history. With black history,” Rickman said of the exhibit. Rickman urged those present to “look at a people struggling, through their church, and learning to rise.”

The seven-panel exhibit is available for loan from Stages of Freedom for educational and cultural events.

“There is an incredible, incredible rich history in Rhode Island that almost no one knows,” Rickman said.