restricted access Poor Laws and the Construction of Race in Early Republican Providence, Rhode Island
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Poor Laws and the Construction of Race in Early Republican Providence, Rhode Island

In October 1806, William Richmond, of Providence, Rhode Island, signed a petition to himself. At first glance, this is an absurdity. Why would a man sign a petition asking himself to do something? The answer to that question can be found at the intersection of Richmond's different identities. Richmond was, of course, a private citizen, and one who owned enough property to vote in local, state, and national elections. Amid the growing importance of race in the early republican North, it was also significant that Richmond was white. Perhaps the most important of Richmond's identities, however, was his public one: Richmond held the powerful local government post of overseer of the poor. Thus, in the 1806 petitions that included Richmond's signature, William Richmond the private citizen was petitioning William Richmond the public official. To put it another way, William Richmond the white American was petitioning William Richmond the overseer of the poor. But what did the overseer of the poor have to do with race? In the aftermath of slavery in this northern state, the overseer of the poor was one public official who had a great deal to do with race. Indeed, the poor laws were the chief way in which most northern government officials could police race.

William Richmond's 1806 petition to himself came about a generation after emancipation in Rhode Island. In February 1784, about half a year after the Treaty of Paris had confirmed the independence of the United States of America, the General Assembly of Rhode Island had passed a gradual emancipation law. It had taken effect on March 1, 1784, and was part of the wave of emancipation laws and judicial decisions that swept every state north of Delaware in the generation after independence. [End Page 264]

As historians are well aware, emancipation laws like the one in Rhode Island by no means eliminated the significance of race in the cultures or law books of the newly "free" states. What is less well studied, however, are the specific tools that government officials and ordinary people used to hammer race into public policy in the North after slavery declined.1 This article will focus on early republican Rhode Islanders and their innovative uses of the poor law both to define and police racial boundaries, even in the aftermath of slavery. While liberating black Rhode Islanders from slavery, legislators and other government officials moved quickly to shore up the poor laws as the centerpiece in a new system of coercion for people of color. Increasingly after 1784, Rhode Island elites wrote new poor laws and also reinterpreted old, race-neutral, poor laws in order to corral people of African descent into a new inferior legal and cultural status in place of slavery.

In legislating with an eye on race, the General Assembly revised the poor laws to grant some freedpeople a right to government assistance if needy. This was a small step toward granting the rights and privileges of citizenship to recently enslaved people. However, the law denied most freedpeople the same access to town money that other Rhode Islanders enjoyed. Instead, the poor laws insisted that former masters be legally responsible for many of their former slaves, thus extending the parent-child relationship between these two groups past the end of slavery itself. And writing legislation was only one way of making poor laws race-specific.2

In interpreting the poor laws, town officials in Providence and elsewhere stretched their legal authority over needy townsfolk in order to police people of color, whether they were needy or not. Linking all people of color with all needy people, local officials assumed special powers over African Americans in Rhode Island that were not, in fact, actually written into law. For example, a town council might make use of its poor-law powers to take a census of all black townspeople, needy or not, and then deport large numbers of these African Americans. Thus, color discrimination in early republican free states like Rhode Island was not only informal but also formal, finding its expression in the sustained use...