Newport, Rhode Island

Representation of African Privateer – courtesy of Rhode Island Black Heritage Society

Since its founding by Protestant English settlers seeking religious freedom in 1639, Newport would quickly become one of the most active seaports in British North America alongside Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Between 1709 – 1809 Rhode Island merchants sponsored 935 documented slaving voyages to the coast of West Africa and carried over 100,000 enslaved Africans to the New World. Rhode Island’s slave traders led by Newport’s 650 slave voyages transported more slaves than the other British North American colonies combined during the 18th century. Newport’s trade with the West Indies began in the mid-17th century in Barbados and expanded dramatically to Jamaica by early 18th century. By the mid 18th century Newport would produce 80% of the World’s Guinea Rum with two dozen  manufactories distilling largely Jamaican harvested sugar into rum.

By the late 18th century, Newport would have a large population of free Africans and in 1780, they would form for the first time in the Americas the “Free African Union Society” to advance civic, cultural and religious identify among the African community of Newport. Within a few years, Boston, Philadelphia and Providence, Rhode Island would form similar societies and corresponding frequently between African communities. The Newport free African heritage community would build in the 19th century the first free African school and establish a church and large African burying ground that is extant to this very day.

Barclay Children, Eastons Beach, Newport – 1913

As George Thomas Barclay had migrated to the safety and security of an active African heritage community in Connecticut, his sister Mary after the Civil War would relocate to Newport, Rhode Island, later joined by her nephew George Nicolas Barclay by 1898.

George Nicolas Barclay, born in Little Liberia in 1876 and only two generations removed from the enslavement his grandfather Robert had overcome, would establish himself and family as part of Newport’s growing and active community of color during the heralded Gilded Age.  George would also join his aunt Mary Barclay Jackson who had relocated from Philadelphia to Newport by 1880,  who would become an active member of the Mt Zion AME Church and founding member of the Rhode Island Colored Women’s Clubs and Women’s League Newport. She would host many of the church and club meetings at her Newport home called the “Jackson Villa.”

Tuskegee Airman Alfred S. Barclay, 1945

George N. Barclay married Bessie Forrester in Newport in 1903 and initially lived with his aunt Mary Barclay Jackson at her home  adjacent to the historic Bellevue Avenue. He becomes an early African American police officer and was active in several African heritage political and civic organizations. During WWII three of his sons serve in the United States Army with his youngest, Alfred Steward Barclay, paying the ultimate price dying in service to his country as a famed Tuskegee Airman. The fellow African heritage members of young Barclay’s company who would die two weeks before his 21st birthday, presented his mother the American flag that flew over the airfield and a plaque that inscribe the words:

“May his spirit soar forever on the wings that he gave his all to earn.”

Today, direct descendants of Robert Barclay continue to live in Newport blessed to have many heirlooms representing  the Barclay family journey from enslavement to freedom from households of Jamaica, Philadelphia, Connecticut and Newport. The present-day Barclay family members also carry on the legacy of Little October as active participants in  family and community prosperity.

” A Family Tie is Like a Tree, it Can Bend, But it Cannot Break”


– African Proverb