Lessons Retold at Rhode Island's First Black History Museum

Stages of Freedom Museum shares “rich, deep, and powerful stories”

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“Rhode Island is really unlike any other state in the Union,” begins Robb Dimmick. “It has a very early and deeply entrenched involvement in slavery, which continues to inform who we are as a people today, both Black and white. Beyond that, it’s an extraordinary place in that there are so many remarkable firsts that are claimed by Rhode Island – the first piece of signed art and first piece of music composed and published by an African American.”

Dimmick sits beside co-founder Ray Rickman; the two run Stages of Freedom, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion and support of the Black community through cultural events. While they’re widely known for seminars and speakers, walking tours and jazz performances, and special programs for youth, their home-base on Westminster Street also boasts a bookstore (funding swimming lessons) and modest museum.

“I like to call it a ‘boutique museum’,” says Dimmick, “small but relevant.” Rickman adds that they’ve had people visit, peruse the artifacts on display, and ask, “Where is the rest of the museum?” Upon replying that what they see is everything, they’d then request to be directed to the African American museum in Rhode Island. Once more, the reply would be, “This is it.” 

Come this month, that is all changing.

Instead of 80 percent of space dedicated to the bookstore and only 20 to the museum, Dimmick and Rickman are excited to flip this model. The Stages of Freedom Museum will showcase a permanent collection – acquired over the course of nearly 40 years – of books, ephemera, documents, and artifacts spanning 1701 to present day. There will also be space for the portable exhibits the pair have put together over the years on the role of the Black church, influential Black chefs, and more. Rickman says the museum will highlight a mix of historic figures from Rhode Island and those with ties to the state, like Frederick Douglas, a national leader in the abolitionist movement, who visited roughly 15 times. Funding for this flip has included grants from the Champlin Foundation, Rhode Island Foundation, and RISD, which is also paying for two student docents and for 300 students to visit each year.

While many items on display such as important papers and plaques, like two honoring Black suffragettes gifted by the RI Heritage Hall of Fame, might be expected, others strike a different chord, forcing viewers to confront a history of which they may or may not be familiar. Rickman speaks in reverence about the items of Black memorabilia the organization has received over the years, like salt and pepper shakers and a striking letter opener with overtly racist imagery. It might feel strange to hear him describe the hand-carved letter opener of a crocodile eating a Black child as a “mechanical piece of art,” but Rickman explains the crucial significance of having these pieces: To get them out of the white hands that created and collected them, “but also to remind and continue to tell the story of how African Americans were depicted in this country.”

As Stages of Freedom prepares for an official opening, Dimmick and Rickman reveal that this month, patrons can take a Zoom tour and view the exhibit online at StagesOfFreedom.org. In May, they hope to open the doors for in-person receptions twice per month, kicking off with a special exhibit on Edward Mitchell Bannister and his wife Christiana Carteaux. Bannister was a prolific painter, founding member of the Providence Art Club, and first person of color to win a national art prize, while Carteaux was a successful businesswoman and “hair doctress” who essentially funded her husband’s career, while also an active abolitionist raising money for the African American regiments in the Civil War and started the state’s first Home for Aged Colored Women. “They were what we like to call a Black Victorian power couple,” Rickman jokes.

Stay up-to-date on Stages of Freedom’s museum, exhibits, and other programs at StagesOfFreedom.org and on Facebook.

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