How Providence’s reparations plan takes a long view on history’s shortcomings

A journey towards reparations includes a broader definition of African heritage

April 17, 2023 1:00 am

Rev. Mahlon Van Horne was the first person of African heritage to be elected to the Newport School Board in 1872 and to the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1885. He served as general counsel to the Danish West Indies under President McKinley in 1898. The writer is a descendent of Van Horne. (Photo from the collection of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society)

Born and raised in historic Newport, Rhode Island, the most active slaving seaport in British North America, I have been surrounded by constant physical reminders of an unjust history that profoundly impacted my ancestors and others of African heritage. My ancestors’ experiences with enslavement, freedom, and reparations are not a distant historical occurrence but something that shaped my family’s journey. I have been fortunate to preserve many family heirlooms from the early days of enslavement. My research has allowed tracing of my ancestor’s journey through Ghana, Jamaica, Philadelphia, and ultimately to my current home in Newport.

Slave chains. (Photo from the collection of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society)

My paternal great-great-grandfather was part of one of the most documented and successful emancipation and reparation efforts. In 1795, David Barclay of London, a Quaker and later Barclay’s Bank founder, emancipated my ancestor and others in Jamaica, strategically transporting them to the largest free African community of the time, Philadelphia. There, they received trade skills, education, and an annuity. This reparative justice investment propelled my ancestor and every generation after him to the benefits of education and financial stability. In my various roles as an elected official, business leader, public servant at the state level, or managing economic development in Providence, I applied their ethos to my work.

Then the George Floyd movement occurred. 

I refocused my efforts and worked on a reparative justice approach that incorporated reparations and policies that would result in generational change.

Being a part of one of America’s most comprehensive racial reparation efforts in Providence, Rhode Island, has been a fulfilling experience for someone deeply rooted in history. The effort has also been of great challenge. After co-authoring the report “A Matter of Truth,” which documented four centuries of racialized discrimination in Providence, Rhode Island, I also participated in implementing the City of Providence Municipal Reparations plan. The plan authorized $10 million to initiate sustaining public and private investments toward closing the racial wealth and equity gaps within the city’s sizeable African heritage and Indigenous populations and neighborhoods. This work has been both rewarding and challenging.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • Review and reform laws and policies that harm African heritage and Indigenous people and communities
  • Create neighborhood incubator(s) focused on African heritage and Indigenous communities
  • Expand cultural engagement and educational opportunities for African heritage and Indigenous communities

Debate over definitions

The city’s investment strategies are anchored on eligibility definitions that recognize city residents who do not trace themselves back to early Providence. However, due to their Indigenous and African heritage, they suffer the same socio-economic injuries caused by the lingering legacy of disenfranchisement and enslavement. The strategy also established a unique eligibility definition of “African Heritage,” an ethnic group with ancestry originating from sub-Saharan Africa. Those city residents of African heritage include but are not limited to, African American, African, Afro-Indigenous, Bi-racial, Afro-Latino, Cape Verdean, and Afro-Caribbean.

This definition and an income requirement of residents facing poverty caused significant debate among a small but vocal group of residents who believed that reparations should only benefit African-Americans and their legacy of enslavement in Providence, Rhode Island. I genuinely respect others’ viewpoints and the passion for expressing them, but I also have to follow factual history and its legacy of racialized discrimination that continues to impact those representing all the people across the African Diaspora. The expanded definition allowed the city to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to address this legacy and pursue reparations work.

I genuinely respect others' viewpoints and the passion for expressing them, but I also have to follow factual history and its legacy of racialized discrimination that continues to impact those representing all the people across the African Diaspora.

 An essential part of our work included engaging in an independent economic analysis to interpret present-day socioeconomic areas of racial disparity across the city. The data demonstrated inequity within the city of Providence, intertwined between race, ZIP codes, and income. The documented disparities that continue to restrict Providence residents and neighborhoods from fully participating in the city’s economy through wealth building and social equity included income disparity, minority business ownership, educational disparity, health disparity, homeownership, incarceration, and poverty rates. These past and present statistics guided and justified the city’s final reparations investment recommendations.

If the present-day conditions of racial and income inequity are not far removed from the conditions of past slavery, are we truly free? That’s the question my long journey of coming to terms with the painful history of human bondage and the consequent racial and income disparities leads me to ask.

Perhaps our obligation today is to remember the past and invest in the people of most significant need today; only then can we all be truly free.


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Keith W. Stokes

Keith W. Stokes of Newport, vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group, served as the former director of business and economic development for the city of Providence. He was the executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, now Rhode Island Commerce and served 15 years as executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce.