On Monday, the city of Providence released a nearly 200-page document detailing the centuries of systemic inequities faced by the city’s black and indigenous residents. The report is the first step in a process to explore reparations for residents of color in Providence, as part of an executive order signed last summer. 

“Today, the City of Providence is one step closer to understanding and acknowledging the depth of our history of racial injustice, and it's unfortunate continued impact on our Black and Indigenous residents,” said Mayor Jorge Elorza in a statement released Monday. 

The report begins with early colonization and the city's role in the slave trade and continues through the civil rights era to the protests for racial justice this summer. 

Keith Stokes was one of the report’s lead authors. Stokes has held positions in government and business, but was brought in to co author this report because of his work as a historian, including with the 1696 heritage Group, a historical research organization.

John Bender spoke with Stokes Monday. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation. You can read the report here.  

Stokes on putting the report together, and his hopes for its public reception: 

"I want to point out the fact that this is a starting point, over 600 sources of primary, secondary documentation, scores of artifacts that cover for centuries, all came from the collections of Rhode Island based in Providence base, libraries, historical institutions and private collections. 

I think sometimes people fail to realize that Rhode Island, particularly our capital city, have some of the deepest enriches in earliest records that begin to interpret the lives of indigenous and African heritage people.

So this is a starting point. The goal would be for people to read this, to embrace it, and more importantly, it would inspire a next generation of scholars, historical institutions, community organizations that take this research and bring it to the next level of public presentations, exhibits and interpretation." 

 Stokes on his personal connection to this work

"This report was very important to me because again, my kids are ninth generation Rhode Islanders. My ancestor was the first state black representative. 

When I came back to Rhode Island, I had the honor to work for many of the men and women in the 20th century that were in this report. So for me, it gave me a real sense of how far we've come. But yet again, how far we still have to go."

Stokes on the breadth of the issues documented in the report

"Sometimes when we think of issues of reparations and reconciliation in Rhode Island, we think immediately to the 18th century slavery, but to speak candidly, the actions of John Brown in the 18th century pales to the actions of Brown University in the 20th century, which certainly benefited from the urban redevelopment the deconstruction and the disruptions of east side of Providence, largely historic African heritage neighborhoods such as Mount Hope, limpid Hill, College Hill, Fox point. 

So for me, it was really reviewing recent history to see overt acts of discrimination and isolation going on in 1960, and 1970, and 1950. During World War One and World War Two, African heritage people, particularly African heritage women, were excluded from the workforce. 

Even though Rhode Island didn't have Jim Crow laws, per se, in the 20th century, it certainly had Jim Crow traditions. 

And there's a whole portion of the report that talks about the activity of the Klan, you're talking about thousands and thousands of Klan members publicly rallying, in presenting themselves, not only in northern Rhode Island, but in my city of Newport in the capital city of Providence.

 I think this is going to surprise people. It's been relentless. The amount of discrimination and isolation that they've experienced, not one part of their history, or not one chapter in the history of Providence, Rhode Island, but ongoing from 17th to 21st centuries."

Stokes on the path forward

"We can read about and and certainly connect with the long ago history of slavery and slave trading, or the King Philip's wars, are anything that might have happened one hundred, two hundred years ago.

But I think it's important for people to also focus on recent history. Civil rights laws and fair housing laws and fair employment laws are only within the middle latter part of the 20th century after long, difficult political, public fights. 

So I think it's absolutely important that people read the report, understand the very origins of racism and discrimination, and how it was very dedicated, racialized around African heritage people, and then how it continued in evolve, it didn't go away. 

It evolved from slavery, to discrimination, to now microaggressions. So it still exists to this day. 

And again, many of the things that you'll see in the 21st century recommendations are issues that are ongoing civil rights issues:  access to affordable and quality public education, access to affordable housing, job training, post COVID, health equity, and wealth. 

It’s less an issue of describing racism, but more of an issue of describing complicity. It's when racism becomes institutionalized. It becomes a series of complicit actions that people turn a blind eye or institutions show little interest in investing in supporting."