African American elections in Warwick

Posted 7/26/23

Located at the junction of Sheldon Avenue and Shirley Street is a 25-by-25-foot burial lot enclosed with iron posts and chains. Within the boundaries lay the remains of at least 11 individuals; 10 …

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African American elections in Warwick


Located at the junction of Sheldon Avenue and Shirley Street is a 25-by-25-foot burial lot enclosed with iron posts and chains. Within the boundaries lay the remains of at least 11 individuals; 10 beneath etched stones and one beneath a simple fieldstone. In 1891, the area was visited by historian James Arnold, who meticulously recorded cemeteries around the state, and he noted “We are told these are colored people.”

The RI Historic Cemetery Commission mentions on their website that the area around this Warwick cemetery had once been known as ‘New Guinea’ due to the number of African-Americans who settled there after slavery was abolished in RI.

By the mid-20th century, this cemetery, with its slate stones dating from 1760 to 1861, was hidden within tall grasses, the ground neglected and the stones falling and sinking into the ground. Known as Warwick Cemetery No. 105, the ‘Lippitt/Spywood Lot’, the individuals known to be buried there are:

Hannah Spywood, who died in 1760. The RIHCC notes that Hannah was mentioned in the diary of Samuel Tillinghast and was referred to as an “Indian woman.”

William Lippitt (1763-1836), who was born into slavery and had been owned by Moses Lippitt; and his wife Patience (East) Lippitt (1768-1851). They had been married by Elder Abraham Lippitt in 1786.

The sons of William and Patience; James Lippitt (1791-1826) and Joseph Lippitt (1800-1829).

The daughter of William and Patience, Nancy (Lippitt) Spywood (1788-1844) and her husband James Spywood (1777-1846) who had been married by Elder Samuel Littlefield on Aug. 30, 1804. Their daughter Ann Eliza Spywood (1812-1833) is also buried there along with Charles Spywood (1804-1863).

Rhoda Arnold (1734-1829), the daughter of Thomas Arnold, and Patty Cheese (1786-1861), the daughter of Pero and Violet Lippitt.

Old records of Warwick identify those with the surname ‘Spywood’ as ‘Indian’, ‘black’ or ‘mulatto’, which means of mixed African and European genes. In 1750, a child named Elisaberg Spywood was identified as an “Indian’ and bound out to Samuel Stafford. In 1774, the home of Samson Spywood contained ‘six Indians.’ And in 1782, the ‘Master’ of 14-year-old Samuel Spywood was contracted to teach him to read but not to write.

At one time, Diadami Spywood’s three-year-old daughter Lucy was deemed likely to become a charge on the Town of Warwick so was bound out to William Burton of Cranston. He agreed to raise her until the age of 18, providing room, board and clothing in exchange for payment of nine pounds.

George Spywood, who was born in 1801 to a Narragansett father and a Mashpee mother, was bound out to white residents as a child. At the age of 15, he witnessed his first Methodist service. As an adult, he went to sea but returned to Warwick and became a Methodist minister.

Members of the Spywood family of Warwick are mentioned frequently in the papers of Benoni Waterman who owned a shipping business. The document collection is housed at the RI Historical Society.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, African-American slaves and servants across America began staging their own “Elections” each June. The event involved eating, drinking, fiddling, dancing and fighting. The men dressed in their best clothes while the woman almost always wore white.

The earliest known African-American elections in RI happened in Newport in 1756 and included over 1,300 people, most of them slaves. Records state that, after witnessing the pride and ambition of Europeans during elections, they wanted to have their own. That June, the votes went into a ballot box as each voter was called up by name. After the votes were counted, the elected man, referred to as the Governor, was escorted to the large tree at the head of Thames Street. The celebration included singing in African and English as well as music provided by fiddles, tambourines, banjos and drums.

Those who attended “The Colored Church on the Plains” gathered in Apponaug for their 19th-century elections. Elections were also held in the old Arnold Tavern where a large hall had been built on the east end with a spring floor for dancing. By 10:00 on the morning of the event, the fiddlers would be there tuning their instruments and putting rosin on their bows.

The election always included a great dinner. Usually, a whole pig would be roasted and put on a large platter, posed to stand on its feet with a lemon in its mouth. Rounding out the meal would often be roast turkey, chicken pie, mince pie, apple pie, cheese pie, oranges and cake.

The purpose of the elections was for African-Americans to have the opportunity to run, campaign and vote for those whom they wanted to represent their rights and interests, among themselves. Two men would then face off against each other. Each would stand with his supporters behind him, in two single lines which often stretched from the tavern to nearly as far as the schoolhouse on the hill. Whoever had the longest line was declared to be Governor over the other African-Americans in their vicinity. Duties included settling arguments between those in the African-American community and making arrangements for the next year’s elections.  

 After the winner was announced, the card-playing, dice-rolling, dancing and drinking began. Those who liked to gamble could step up to the two barrels holding a board, a game of chance in which pennies could be placed in desired spots. The tavern’s barroom was located under the hall and, typically, two or three bartenders would be working on the day of an elections to fill the beverage orders which came in from both sexes. As the day went on and attendees began showing signs of intoxication, the bartenders simply watered the drinks down to assure the celebration could continue. The dancing usually went on all night and everyone returned to their homes the next morning.

The line of chosen Governors at those tavern elections included Cato Holden and George Eldridge. One man who always attended was a rum-lover named Bill Bliss. Each year, he brought a whip to the event and showed off, cracking it loudly. Everyone knew, however, that although Bill could afford a whip, he couldn’t afford a team of horses.

A lot of attention centered on Bill Bliss during each election, because of the cracking whip as well as other reasons. He had been born with an abnormally large mouth and tongue. To the amusement of everyone, he would stick his tongue in his left ear, then his right. 

Another regular at the tavern elections was a butcher named Joe Prophet, also known as "Uncle Joe.” Hovering over the crowd as the tallest man there, his face was said to never be without a smile. Prime Perry, a small, slender man with a very dark complexion greatly enjoyed the dancing at the elections. Peter Rosser, a large man who worked as a teamster for a manufacturing company, seemed to be there simply for the intoxicants. Eventually he would get drunk and engage in violent fights with those in his company.

The white men around the country who owned or employed the African-Americans who took part in the elections of the 18th and 19th century, collectively approved of the event. Most felt it was beneficial to have African-Americans governing among themselves, making each other abide by rules and condemning such things as larceny and immorality. Eventually, the elections ceased and many believed it was because the church and the Lord had been powerful enough to turn African-Americans toward sobriety and away from alcohol-fueled celebrations. 

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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