The American slave trade was integral to Rhode Island’s early economy; between 60% and 90% of Rhode Islanders were connected to the Colonial and Post-Colonial American slave trade as ship builders and crew, insurers, and financiers. State residents were also involved in more indirect ways, including as iron and firearms manufacturers and farmers and food producers in South County. Rhode Island sat at the center of New England’s power in the business of international slave trading. Slavery is thus at the core of Rhode Island’s founding story. The Cathedral of St. John, which sits on a contained but expansive campus on North Main Street, offers a similar narrative.
I can spot the tip of the stone cathedral’s clock tower from Benefit Street, and it grows before me as I walk the winding brick paths down the hill, through the cemetery. Though the exterior of the building appears indestructible, the interior tells a story of gradual decline. The ceilings and columns in the vestibule are dripping with peeling white and blue paint. Inside the church, massive white tarps cover the pews and I spot a web of cracks along the right base of the dome overhead. Upstairs, I am instructed not to enter the side chapel, or risk being struck by a three-inch-thick chunk of crumbling ceiling. Missing swaths of plaster on the walls expose the building’s wooden frame in the former Sunday school rooms.
The Cathedral of St. John has not functioned as a church since closing its doors in 2012. Several community organizations now operate within the church’s deteriorating walls and next-door in the Diocese, including The Center for Reconciliation. Elon Cook is The Center’s Program Director and Curator. In partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, which owns the Cathedral, Cook and her organization have a vision to equip Rhode Islanders with a safe space for community dialogues around American histories of race and slavery.
“I was always naturally interested in the history of race,” Cook tells me. After growing up in a suburb in Maryland planned around racial diversity, Cook’s understanding of race in 21st century America was transformed when she began her undergraduate studies at Spelman College, a historically black, all women’s institution in Atlanta. “What is this concept and why does it make so little sense!” she recalls wondering. “I feel like it was always meant to be confusing…it’s not cut and dry. Because it is something that humans, who are deeply flawed, invented.”
The Center for Reconciliation bases much of its programming on the complexity inherent to the history of race in the United States. The Cathedral of St. John itself embodies those layers of narratives, rendering the church an ideal permanent home for The Center. The congregation of the church first organized in 1722 within a wooden structure much smaller than today’s grand, stone Cathedral. The present building was completed in 1811 and consecrated as a Cathedral in 1929. From the church’s founding through the Civil War, the building and congregation grew in part through their connections to slavery. An enslaved man who was owned by a Senior Warden of the church is believed to have been foreman during the construction of Brown University’s University Hall. Additionally, members of the Chace family, who worked for and worshiped at the church, were slave-owners. They are buried next to the church’s side doors, while the names of three of their female slaves are listed on a headstone erected on the periphery of the Colonial Era cemetery.
The legacy of these histories is what The Center for Reconciliation has already begun to engage. As they work with the Diocese to renovate and restore the Cathedral of St. John, The Center is also planning to further expand its capacity to engage the public in discourse around racial reconciliation. In the musty, community basement space of the Cathedral, Cook says permanent exhibitions exploring the history of slavery in Rhode Island will soon replace the temporary exhibit that currently inhabits it. As a “flexible” space, the room will also be equipped with infrastructure for community conversations, film events, theater productions, and more. This multifunctional character of the space is part of what Cook hopes will set this museum apart from others in the country.
The idea, Cook explains, is that “the whole building will become a center for reconciliation. There will be several different programs living in this space and we will be one of the main ones…The Center for Reconciliation.” The Episcopal Diocese is still considering which organizations will join The Center in the Cathedral, but they may include theater, art, or youth-centered organizations. A diversity of areas of expertise will enable the chosen organizations to collaborate on building dialogue around race and reconciliation.
Without forcing an analogy, there is a useful correspondence between the repairs being made to restore the Cathedral and the healing dialogues around racial reconciliation that the Center is working to establish. “Anytime you have a house, and no one’s living in it, it falls apart,” says Cook, referring to the structural and cosmetic disrepair of the building (Hard Hat Area signs are posted outside most rooms). At the same time, Cook explains that local community members – teachers, church leaders, office managers – frequently approach the Center looking for programs to help them engage in or facilitate conversations around the challenging topic of race.
“People don’t feel comfortable talking to other people [right now], because they’re afraid that if they bring [race] up that other people will get angry – that it will cause greater divisions.” Cook says that people want a safe space in which to reconcile American histories of slavery, and in which to start to build an inclusive public dialogue around race in the 21st century. “Even though [conversations about race] are difficult, we recognize that they are very necessary and the reason they are so difficult is that we haven’t been having them for so long.” Discourse around these histories in both Rhode Island and the Cathedral are indeed overdue. The Center endeavors to become a resource to inform and expand public conversations around racial injustices of the past and present, and to provide a platform on which to build toward reconciliation for the future.
By Francesca Gallo
Site: The Cathedral of St. John, Address: 271 North Main Street, Providence