It’s a rare occurrence when newspapers provide historical context for today’s social conflicts, rather than little more than click-baiting headlines. It was therefore a welcome event when journalist Olga Enger of Newport This Week, penned a refreshingly well-researched article on the “long arc” of the history of the Rhode Island slave trade.
Ms. Enger traced this history across two centuries until outlawed in 1807, citing scholar Marcus Rediker’s groundbreaking book “The Slave Ship”. After the eclipse of the “notorious triangle”, Enger noted the long-term impact of radical black reformers like Newport’s own George Downing, associate of Frederick Douglass, who helped put an end to legal segregation of schools in Rhode Island in 1866.
One often forgets whence came the various movements for justice, civil rights, and honoring the anonymous victims of the slave trade. Centuries of struggle against bondage, and for equality before the law preceded today’s efforts to rectify slavery’s hidden past. “The arc of the moral universe is a long one,” Massachusetts abolitionist Theodore Parker observed in 1850, laying down one the oft-quoted phrase used by Martin Luther King, President Obama and others. This arc of history, while at times unbearably long and often invisible to the casual observer, Parker believed “from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice”. If this is true, it bends only from the force of the many thousands of lives across the centuries pushing it toward justice.