RI and Desegregation

RI and Desegregation

Michael Byansk, Contributor

After slavery was made illegal Rhode Island was among the first states to see a voice for all rights for African Americans. Those supporting the change for rights went up against many pro segregation and racist individuals. African-American activists George Downing, Ichabod Northup, Ransom Parker, and James Jefferson pushed for the right of Africans in 1841 long before the law was put to enforce equal treatment. Once they were able to secure their rights activists went onward to the issue of the school system where black people were not even able to go to high school yet. They fought for a decade over the subject until they finally won in 1865.  

The new constitution in 1840 excluded black people from the right of voting and African Americans spurned by the Suffrage Party backed the existing Charter government. During the dispute this would be recognized as the Dorr Rebellion in 1842 and would cause Rhode Island to be the only state in the antebellum period to re-enfranchise African Americans. Which was to re-instate the right for black men to vote after the new constitution was drafted. In the end the efforts of the activism of Northup and Ransom eventually paid off and they went on to their next task.  

With the success of African American suffrage Downing along with Jefferson, Northup and Parker went for equal school rights. One person saying “my proposal was to petition the General Assembly that my child should go to school in my own ward, where I pay taxes and vote”  as segregation pushed schools away from one another. Many African Americans grieved over the inferior school houses that they were given compared to that of whites. From 1858 forward those in favor of abolishing segregation in the public school system pushed to try and get their voice out attempting to resolve the issue. They sent petitions to the board over the issue but unfortunately were turned down over the issue of everyone having public school. Finally in 1864 the committee of Education, prompted by the recent petition, held public hearings through the year and with the recent debate in congress a bill was proposed for no distinction to be made between race, color, or religion but was changed so that the town would decide whether or not to integrate. Two years later in March 1866 the RI general assembly passed a statute saying “no distinction be made on account of the race or color of the applicant.” With this the efforts of the activists were realized. 

A year after the end of the civil war the rights of African Americans were fully realized with integration.  The decision for equal rights will be with us as a reminder of what has happened and what the people have fought for. This event will lead our way of thinking as we go forward into the unexplored problems that are around us, and with this, encounter a better understanding of what is next.