Diversifying Historic Preservation in Rhode Island

Published on Friday, April 26, 2024

(Providence, R.I.) A Newport cemetery that contains the burials of enslaved and free people of African heritage, a church built for Westerly’s African American community, Providence homes advertising tourist accommodations in the Green Book—these Rhode Island sites are listed in the National Register of Historic Places for their significant African and African American history. Many other important properties have been overlooked, or their full stories have not been told. While Rhode Island can claim 17,500 properties in the federal government’s list of sites worthy of preservation, few of these listings document the experiences and contributions of people of African heritage. An initiative of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) is diversifying historic preservation by expanding representation in the National Register. 

This effort originated in 2014 with a project coordinated by RIHPHC and Rhode Island Black Heritage Society (RIBHS) to research and record the history of African Americans and Cape Verdeans in the College Hill Historic District in Providence. Documentation of seventy-five properties associated with people of African heritage was added to the National Register nomination, presenting a more complete understanding of the people who lived, worked, studied, and worshipped in this historic Providence neighborhood.   

Additional phases have focused on the history of African Americans’ struggle for civil rights in Rhode Island, from the colony’s first law regarding enslavement in 1652 through State efforts to desegregate schools into the 1970s. The ongoing initiative has produced exhibits, curricula, public programs, and two survey reports. Work is currently underway to prepare a National Register nomination for the Pawtucket residence of groundbreaking African American journalist John Carter Minkins (1869-1959), who called out and fought racial injustice from the 1900s to the 1950s.

Later this year, RIHPHC will hire a preservation consultant to prepare a document on the theme of African American Civil Rights in Rhode Island and to nominate four related properties to the National Register. This document, the Multiple Property Documentation Form, is expected to streamline the National Register nomination process and result in more listings that honor people of African heritage in state and local history. 

The ongoing initiative has been supported by a series of federal grants. The most recent award is a $66,000 Underrepresented Communities Grant (URC) from the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF) administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. The HPF has funded more than $2 billion since its inception in 1977 towards historic preservation grants. 

National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said, “The National Park Service is proud to work with our Tribal, State, and local partners through the Underrepresented Communities grant program to ensure that the National Register better reflects the important places and significant stories of all Americans.”

“It is important that, as the state office for Historical Preservation and Heritage, we are undertaking these efforts to add the stories of people of African heritage to the National Register in Rhode Island,” added RIHPHC Executive Director Jeffrey D. Emidy, “I am grateful for the assistance of our partners on these projects, and for the continued support and recognition of the National Park Service.” 


Pleasant St Baptist Church in Westerly
Pleasant Street Baptist Church in Westerly
Minkins House
John Carter Minkins House in Pawtucket
gravestone of Hector Butcher at God's Little Acre, Newport
Gravestone of Hector Butcher at God's Little Acre in Newport