PROVIDENCE—Dion and Marguerite Dunlany’s walking tour of the Renaissance City yesterday encountered something not included in their Fodor’s Guide: a group of white people yoked and chained together in front of the John Brown House, accompanied by Africans and African-Americans.
Wearing black “So Sorry” T-shirts, the men, women and children from the London-based Lifeline Expedition visited Providence as part of a three-week tour of East Coast sites historically connected with the Atlantic slave trade, said its leader, David Pott.
Pott, a lean, bearded man who describes himself as “a full-time Christian worker,” said that after experiencing a vision in 1997, “I concluded that my calling was to lead a reconciliation journey.”
Pott has led such expeditions in former slave trading ports in Europe, and more recently, in Annapolis, Md. The yokes and chains are intended to symbolize penitence, said Pott, and the action is intended to prompt discussion “of slavery and race relations” today.
The group’s scheduled march in Newport today has perturbed Keith Stokes, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, who said he nonetheless respects the group’s right to assemble and present its case.
“I just disagree with marching in chains,” Stokes said. “I think marching in chains is sensational. . . Because I am quite hypersensitive to the horror of enslavement, putting anyone in chains is quite distasteful for me.”
The group “had asked me whether Newport could write a letter of apology,” Stokes said. “I don’t quite know who should be apologizing for the transatlantic slave trade. . . Today, to try and assign guilt to any one country, government or race is impossible, and, I don’t think, functional.”
Hundreds of years later, said Stokes, slavery “is still an issue that very few people can understand or quite emotionally talk about,” whether black or white. “In that context, I think it’s very important to present that story in a way that does not assign guilt and does not ask reparations.”
Stokes said he helped the group secure a parade permit and will meet with members this morning “at our African burial ground, which is probably the most significant one in America.
“We will give them an overview of 17th- and 18th-century Africans, how they arrived, who their masters were,” and what their lives and accomplishments included, said Stokes. He also plans to give the group “a context of Newport” as one of the two leading slave trading ports in America.
The march is scheduled for 10 a.m., starting at the burial ground.
THE DUNLANYS, who are from Atlanta, were the only two passersby during the noon demonstration in front of 52 Power St., in Providence.
The event included African drumming, welcoming speeches from the head of the Rhode Island Historical Society and Stanley Lemons, a Rhode Island College historian, and a minute of silence.
“I think you can put us in touch with history in a way that’s very important, and help us think differently about our lives today,” said Bernard P. Fishman, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, which owns the John Brown House Museum.
Fishman noted that the John Brown House “was the home of a great merchant, patriot and entrepreneur who invested in several slaving voyages and very publicly supported the trade’s legitimacy. It is, therefore, a place of enormous symbolic power and expresses the many contradictions of history.”
Marguerite Dunlany, who grew up in Jamaica Plain in Boston, said the demonstration raises the sort of discussion that from her experience, still puts Southerners on the defensive.
“Even in Atlanta, you start talking and you scratch the surface, and then blind and baseless prejudices begin to emerge,” she said.
Dion Dunlany, who as a child lived in a historic house in Duxbury, Mass., that was built for a slave trader, said he liked the demonstration. “I think it’s fine. I think it’s a healthy thing to apologize for injustice.”
The demonstration was held next to a bronze plaque denoting John Brown’s involvement in the slave trade that was placed there two years ago after more than a decade of pressure from the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society.
The group’s visit also occurs as Brown University is examining the issue of slave reparations.
Brown President Ruth J. Simmons last year launched a two-year public discussion of how other societies have confronted their past and made atonements, which also examined Brown’s links to the Colonial slave trade.
Meanwhile, a group known as The New Century Foundation opposed yesterday’s event, through an e-mail sent to The Journal.
“We just think that this is not a helpful exercise but a harmful one in that it attempts to blame whites living today for things done long in the past, and in many cases by people long ago to whom today’s whites aren’t related,” Jared Taylor, the Oakton, Va.-based group’s president, said in a telephone interview.
“Perhaps even more so it encourages a sense of abiding grievance among blacks and this is certainly not helpful to them, or to whites,” said Taylor.
Taylor described his group as a “nonprofit foundation interested in race relations and immigration.” But Mark Potok, editor of The Intelligence Report published by The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups nationwide, said, “We list them as a white supremacist hate group.”
Potok said American Renaissance, a journal published by The New Century Foundation, focuses on “race and IQ . . . how whites are smarter than blacks and how race is a real scientific category. And they’re into this eugenics stuff, which is a completely discredited science, because of its association with Hitler. The idea is, you can better the human race by selective breeding.”
Said Taylor, “We hate no one.”