The experience of Providence is deeper and richer when it is connected to stories of the city’s history.
The theme of commemoration and legacy for PVDFest Ideas 2021 made me remember a friend’s greeting on his answering machine: “Human beings crave narrative. Tell me your story.” Cities are active places of engagement where stories of what is and what used to be are apparent to the people navigating streets, buildings, parks, and parking lots. Providence holds a multitude of stories, and what makes the city so interesting to me is how it has inspired many talented and knowledgeable people to interpret and re-interpret its legacies.
Stories can reveal the price of progress. Take, for example, the Rhode Island State House. It is a monument to the state’s intense economic expansion at the turn of the 20th century. Making way for the State House meant tearing down what that place had been–a poor neighborhood known as Snowtown. Is it possible to encounter the State House in its intimidating magnificence and also consider what that land used to be, who lived there, and their struggles? That is the question posed by the Snowtown Project. This collaborative project brings together historians, archaeologists, artists, educators, and citizen scholars to uncover and piece together its many stories. This project does not diminish the symbolic and architectural importance of the State House, the work of legislators that takes place there, or its placement as an anchor of the city. Rather, interpreting Snowtown makes visible the dynamics of class and race underpinning progress and encourages new perspectives on equitable change and development.
Far from passive, stories can be active agents of change. Residents of Providence’s West Broadway neighborhood often mournfully passed a huge, crumbling Victorian mansion known as the Wedding Cake House. Falling into disrepair nearly to the point of no return, there were many attempts to rescue the property. Providence’s distinctive combination of artists and scholars working together helped to preserve the building at last, in part by telling the story of the building’s past as a women-owned business. Through the reimagination led by feminist art collective The Dirt Palace, the Wedding Cake House is now an artists’ residency, bed and breakfast, and exhibition space, weaving together the ephemeral history of the women who lived and worked there in the past with bold interpretive acts by artists, writers, and historians.
Commemoration can inspire justice. Sissieretta Jones, a Black woman who lived in 19th and early 20th century Providence, attained enormous national and international popularity and fame as an accomplished operatic soprano. Among many, many achievements, Jones was the first African-American to perform at Carnegie Hall. Yet the city where she spent much of her young life and where she lived during her later years failed to honor her legacy when she died. As part of a multi-year project of researching and highlighting Jones’ life and times, the Black history organization Stages of Freedom discovered her unmarked grave in Grace Church Cemetery at the intersection of Broad and Elmwood Streets. In 2018, they raised the money to have a handsome headstone made and placed at her grave, unveiled during a joyous ceremony.
Stories provide context, inspire awareness of the complexity of a place, and impart new, sometimes surprising, knowledge. As partners of PVDFest Ideas, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities is excited about the programming on the horizon for the coming months, which invites you to examine and re-examine commemoration and legacy at a moment of local, national, and international resonance. Does this inspire you to feel more connected and involved? Tell us your story!
Elizabeth Francis, PhD
Executive Director, Rhode Island Council for the Humanities