History

When the first African American elected into public office in Providence had to move to Liberia over racial discrimination

He was the first African American to have been elected to public office in Providence on Rhodes Island in 1857. Thomas Howland initially worked as a stevedore and grocer before assuming the position of public office.

But, he left Providence for Liberia following racial discrimination he suffered during an encounter to acquire a passport, according to the Rhodes Island Historical Society. The famous frame of Howland is a painting of him with a skeptical glare, his eyebrow raised and his lips carrying a slight smirk. He is seated gorgeously in a curved chair back with a classical outlook.

In the painting, a man is seen flogging some horses, one that art enthusiasts say might be a depiction of Howland’s career of stevedoring at the shipyards where cargoes are moved to various destinations. The painting was drawn by a local stonecutter and artist, John Blanchard.

Historians are not sure when the frame of Howland was made, but there is the assumption that it predates the period he migrated to Liberia in 1857 with his wife and daughter. On October 23, 1857, the New York Times picked reports by the local daily Providence Journal of Howland’s application for his passport.

He did this through a Providence notary, one Martin, but the request for the application was turned down on the basis that passports are not issued to people of African descent. The grounds of the passport office were that such individuals are not fit to be in the United States.

The Supreme Court of the United States in 1857 gave a ruling on the Dred Scott case which stated that enslaved persons or free people of color are barred from becoming U.S. citizens. It was on this basis that Howland’s application for a passport was denied. This rejection was at a time when Howland was a citizen of the United States and had voting rights in his home region of Rhodes Island.

He had also been elected as the first African American in the office of warden of Providence’s Third Ward in 1857. But, the discrimination compelled him to leave Providence for Liberia with his wife and daughter. His wife was expected to enter into the teaching profession because of her qualification and experience with Providence’s public schools. Howland moved in 1857 to Liberia where he took up sugar manufacturing.

His desire was to create a comfortable life for his family and himself devoid of racial discrimination and injustice.

Stephen Nartey

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