Many years ago when Newport was a major transatlantic slave port, a lot of enslaved Africans lived and worked in colonial Rhode Island. It is documented that most of them were artisans, working as stone carvers or bakers. Duchess “Charity” Quamino, who became known as the “Pastry Queen of Rhode Island,” was one of them.
She was born in 1753, possibly in Senegal or Ghana. She developed her skills as an excellent baker while working as a slave in the Channing family home in colonial Rhode Island. William Channing was the attorney general of Rhode Island. Quamino, who was nicknamed Charity, cooked meals for the family of William Channing, and while doing that, she started growing her own catering business.
She became famous for her frosted plum cake, which she made for the rich and prominent people who passed through Newport. According to historians, she baked twice for George Washington.
“There is secondary information [stating] that when George Washington arrived at Newport, she provided catering for that venue,” Keith Stokes, vice president of the Newport history organization 1696 Heritage Group, told Atlas Obscura.
By 1782, Quamino had earned enough money from her catering business to buy her freedom. And while living next door to the Channing family, she was allowed to use their large oven for special baking projects. It is believed that she also purchased the freedom of her children after her husband tried doing so but failed.
John Quamino and his wife were both very religious people who were members of the Protestant Church in Newport. When John won a lottery and bought his freedom in 1773, his pastor helped him go for missionary training at the College of New Jersey, currently Princeton. John thus became one of the first Africans to attend an American college. During the American Revolution, he worked as a privateer hoping to save some money to purchase the freedom of his wife and children but he died.
Quamino was left alone to raise the children but she worked hard to eventually buy her freedom and theirs. In 1792, she became the first Black woman invited to join a Black male organization in New England, when she purchased a one-sixth share in the business of the Palls and Biers Society of the African Union, “an organization whose main goal was to raise consciousness and funds within the African community to someday return to their native Africa,” per this report.
Quamino remained a respected person and businesswoman in her community until her death on June 29, 1804, at the age of 65. She is buried in Newport’s Common Burying Ground, in the northern section known as “God’s Little Acre”.
Now remembered as one of Newport’s well-known early Black cooks who was also famous for her piety, William Ellery Channing wrote the inscription for her gravestone: “In memory of Duchess Quamino, a free Black of distinguished excellence; Intelligent, industrious, affectionate, honest, and of exemplary piety; who deceased June 29, 1804, aged 65 years.”