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Providence's Hidden History: Student Research Uncovers Local Truths About Slave Trade

Maya Clifton '18 and Taiwo Demula, a Sophia Academy alumna and current senior at Classical High School, recently spoke at Lincoln School about their summer research internships with the Brown University's Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, a space for the study of historical forms of slavery and how those legacies shape our current world. 

Maya and Taiwo were both accepted into the competitive program with a clear focus on what they'd like to study: Maya researched the history of streets in College Hill in relation to Providence and Brown University's connection to the transatlantic slave trade; Taiwo, a resident of the South Side of Providence, examined the transatlantic slave trade in relation to local historic locations.

Research was intense, and the results were impressive—both Maya and Taiwo uncovered what they called Providence's hidden history.

"I don't think this information exists in literature or in curriculum anywhere. Textbooks just don't cover this," said Maya. 

Methodologies included hours spent poring over Providence census reports and shipping dossiers dating back to the early 1800s, interviewing longtime members of the Providence community, and examining historic maps of Providence from as far back as 1774.

Taiwo was able to identify significant locations for people of color, identify controversial monuments within the city including the statue of Christopher Columbus in her own neighborhood. 

"After this research, the South Side of Providence felt different to me. Everywhere I went, I thought: someone walked here before me. That's very powerful," said Taiwo. "We're very good at hiding our history... But in order for us to heal we need to acknowledge the history of Providence. The things we see in our day to day lives are products of our past. Learning to acknowledge that, learn from it, we can move on while still commemorating what happened." 

Maya's research resulted in the CSSJ Slavery & Legacy Street Tour, a pioneering journey through Providence that provides participants with the history, nomenclature, and cultural significance of some beloved and forgotten parts of the city. And her legacy will live on past Maya's tenure at Brown—the tour was so powerful that it will continue to be given in her absence. 

"Everything I learned was so surprising. The thing that really struck me: streets that I go down every single day, I had no idea about the past that was behind them," said Maya. "I began looking at everything differently. Clearly we have to do work in order to uncover the real history of where we live and I, for one, am so ready to do that work."

Watch the whole presentation here: