RI Community Service and Educational Organizations Celebrate Black History Month
As Black History Month draws to a close, community service and education organizations in Providence and Rhode Island have held several events to celebrate and continue advocacy efforts for the Black community.
The Herald spoke to five organizations about how they commemorated the month.
Providence Children’s Museum
The Providence Children’s Museum presents an annual play “MLK: Amazing Grace,” which took place this year on February 19. The piece tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and highlights the civil rights movement in a way that focuses on children, said Caroline Payson, the museum’s executive director.
“It starts from the perspective of a little boy trying to make sense of justice and injustice as he sees it,” Payson said. “Our hope for this piece is that they see themselves, regardless of background, as children who can ask questions about things in the world that might trouble them.”
The museum is also offering recorded books each week with its partnership with the Rhode Island Black Storytellers Association this month, Payson said.
“I want the kids’ experience at the museum to be what they need,” Payson said, whether it’s running up the ramp, exploring the laser cutters and 3D printers in the studio. innovation or to discover the story of a Dominican. immigrant through the reconstruction of the Fefa market.
The museum’s programming and exhibitions have been impacted by the pandemic. According to Payson, the museum had about 180,000 to 190,000 patrons a year before COVID, but currently sees 70 to 75 percent fewer visitors.
The day of the “Amazing Grace” play saw 725 visitors, the most on a single day since 2019, Payson said, but the museum would see double that before the pandemic hit. As a nonprofit that doesn’t have a large endowment, the museum is slowly starting to return to more physical exhibits and hopes visitor numbers will recover.
Redwood Library and the Athenaeum
Redwood Library and the Athenaeum in Newport, RI hosted a series of virtual Black History lectures in honor of the month, said Executive Director Benedict Leca, PhD’04. These included lectures by Rhode Island Civic Chorale & Orchestra Conductor Edward Markward, Wellesley College History Professor Brenna Wynn Greer, RISD Assistant Professor Christopher Roberts, and Stages of Freedom co-founders Ray Rickman and Robb Dimmick. .
The Redwood also opened an art installation Feb. 16 that features a sculpture by contemporary artist Nari Ward, Leca said. Ward redesigns large case clocks with West African wood carvings, and the piece is on permanent display in the library.
For both libraries, the pandemic has brought both downsides and upsides. Although unable to host in-person presentations, libraries quickly pivoted in August 2020 to using Crowdcast for online programming. They also created a YouTube channel and revamped their website. The Redwood also hosts an annual gospel choir concert with singers from two black churches in Newport, which was canceled last year for the safety of performers and audiences.
The Redwood and Athenaeum are both partially reopened, with reduced hours from the pre-pandemic schedule, but accommodations can be made for researchers who need access to equipment.
When it comes to Black History Month and the work of the library, “you celebrate accomplishments and you retain a certain element of criticality because the struggle isn’t over,” Leca said.
Leca added that she hopes visitors will make an effort to understand “the richness and intricacies” of the library’s collections.
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“You want to consider your sources…and weigh the material you critically absorb,” she said.
Providence Community Library
On February 24, Rochambeau Library Clerk Khamry Varfley led a Women in Business panel to educate attendees on the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses and giving entrepreneurs a platform to share advice and stories. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black-owned businesses. Supporting these businesses encourages other entrepreneurs, which helps diversify the economy, Varfley.
“I really want people to have a better idea of how small businesses and black businesses work,” she said.
Systems Coordinator Dhana Whiteing runs the monthly Conversations Book Club, which features books written by people of color and marginalized groups. On March 16, the Mount Pleasant Library will host a Black Photographers Showcase featuring four local black photographers, one of whom volunteered at the library as a child, according to Whiteing.
“There just aren’t enough days (in Black History Month), but we’re doing our best,” she added.
Other events at the library include an annual jazz concert in April or May, a market scheduled for April 30, recurring author talks, and the Seed Program, which “highlights the leadership of farmers and educators of BIPOC,” according to the library’s website. The outdoor-focused market is designed to showcase small businesses and serve as a networking opportunity, said Varfley, who is also a small business owner.
It is also hoped that the increased number of events this year will attract more visitors and support for events in the future, and Patrons of Varfley and Whiteing hope to take advantage of the programming and resources available.
“Come to your local library,” Whiteing said. “It’s one of the few free places.”
Newport Historical Society
The Newport Historical Society strives to highlight archival research, such as with the “Know Your History” webpage. The webpage is a compilation of resources and blog posts that includes a collection of BIPOC history and heritage in Rhode Island. There was also a “Creative Survival” walking tour on February 20, which highlighted the history of POC in Newport.
“There’s no history without black history, so if we’re not telling it year-round, we’re deliberately excluding a central piece of our local history,” chief executive Ruth Taylor said. The band is also interested in trying “to highlight and uncover authentic POC voices from the past,” according to Taylor.
A group of scholars are currently working remotely to sift through archival documents and incorporate references to people of color from history into a database. According to Taylor, the goal is to construct biographies by cross-referencing in order to “speak more fully of the authentic experience of people in early Newport”.
“It’s an effort, but it pays off,” she said.
The pandemic has displaced some of the work being done by the NHS as more resources have been uploaded to the website. Online events and programs have also helped reach a wider audience, Taylor said, as it hosts around 200,000 people a year.
“I really hope the world starts to recognize that history isn’t just an academic pursuit… understanding history, how we got here, can be hugely helpful in understanding where we’re going from here. ‘here, how we fix things,’ she said. . “History is like this gigantic database of human behavior, and why would we ignore that?”
Ray Rickman and Robb Dimmick, co-founders of Stages of Freedom, a heritage museum in Providence, hosted a virtual event with Redwood Library and the Athenaeum on “Disappearing Ink,” a newly released bibliography of writings by and about African Americans Who Reviews the Black Press. “We want to bring this story to white and black people here in Providence and inspire young people who are interested in journalism to consider starting their own newspaper,” Dimmick said.
Rickman and Dimmick also bonded with Amiri Nash ’24, who founded The Black Star Journal, The Herald previously reported. The first issue of the new publication is expected to be released on Friday.
Rickman and Dimmick spoke in five one-minute segments for public radio Martha’s Vineyard, with each episode spotlighting a prominent African American in Rhode Island. Rickman has also given two talks — one at Middlebridge School in Narragansett and the other at Barrington Congregational Church — on the Stages of Freedom’s Swim Empowerment program for black youth.
“Our theme is to really bring to the fore significant African Americans in Rhode Island and their contributions to shaping culture and discourse,” Dimmick said. The two email 12,000 people daily, highlighting events, resources and information about the pandemic. They are also providing 1,000 COVID test kits per week to the local community. Stages of Freedom is also continuing to work on a new museum, which is expected to open later this year.
Stages of Freedom has compiled the “On the Road to Freedom” database, a virtual guide to sites associated with black history in Rhode Island. The organization’s website features further information and updates on programs and events.
“What we really hope is that people see the breadth, richness and depth of African American history in Rhode Island, not limited to 28 or 29 days a year, but throughout the year,” Dimmick said. “The bottom line is recognizing that black history is a shared history.”