Black History Month – People, Places & Events: Remembering a group of 19th and 20th Century African Heritage Leaders in Newport

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February is Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, an annual time to celebrate the achievements, and a time for recognizing the central role, of African Americans in U.S. history.

During the month of February, What’s Up Newp plans to use our platform to highlight and recognize the achievements by local African Americans.

In 2020, What’s Up Newp reached out to Newport resident Keith Stokes, Vice President of the 1696 Heritage Group, to bring you this story – a look at a group of 19th & Early 20th Century African Heritage Leaders in Newport.

All images are courtesy of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society.

1. George T. Downing

Arriving in Newport by the mid 1840’s, George T. Downing would become one of 19th century Newport’s most successful hospitality entrepreneurs. 

Downing lobbied tirelessly to officially desegregate Rhode Island public schools, beginning in 1857, by which time he was well-established in Newport as the proprietor of the Sea Girt House luxury hotel along with a confectionary and catering business on the Downing Block.

Downing would later lead for the repeal of the state’s ban on interracial marriage, and racial discrimination in the reorganization of the Rhode Island militia. Downing helped purchased Touro Park and founded the American Colored Union Labor League.

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2. Reverend Mahlon Van Horne

Rev. Van Horne was Pastor at Union Colored Congregational Church between 1868 & 1896. This church was established in 1824 as a religious extension of Newport’s 18th century Free African Union Society.

Rev. Van Horne becomes the first African heritage person elected to the Newport School Board in 1871 and the first to serve in the RI General Assembly in 1885 leading the passage of the state Civil Rights Act that year. In 1887 he penned “The Negro in Rhode Island: His Past, Present & Future.”

In 1898 he was appointed General Counsel to Danish West Indies by President McKinley during Spanish American War.

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3. J. T. Allen

J  T Allen and his brother D B Allen came to Newport in 1893 and established several restaurant and catering businesses.  He was the managing proprietor of the “HYGEIA SPA,” at Easton’s Beach.

The brothers would also open a restaurant at 29 TOURO STREET, in the historic Perry Mansion, under the Lawrence Club, one of the most aristocratic clubs of the city.

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4. Mary H. Dickerson

Mary Dickerson and her husband Silas arrived in Newport from New Haven, Ct. around 1865. By 1872 she established a “Fashionable Dressmaking Establishment” at 5 Travers Block servicing the needs of Newport’s summer residents. 

In 1895 she was a founder of the Women’s Newport League. In 1896 she was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and in 1903 she established the first federation of African American Women’s Club in Rhode Island.

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5. Dr. Harriet A. Rice

Dr. Harriet A. Rice was born in 1866 in Newport and lived a considerable amount of her life in the family home at 75 Spring Street. She graduated from Rogers High School in 1882 and she went on to become the first African American to graduate from Wellesley College in 1887. Soon after she would earn a medical degree at the University of Michigan Medical School.

As an African American woman and licensed physician, it was nearly impossible for Dr. Rice to practice medicine at any American hospital. She soon joined the famous social worker and women’s suffrage leader, Jane Adams at the celebrated Hull House in Chicago providing medical treatment to poor families. 

At the start of WWI, she would leave for France to serve as a physician in military hospitals. On July 1919, the French Embassy presented Dr. Rice the National Medal of French Gratitude for her outstanding services treating wounded French soldiers between 1915 and 1918.

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6.  Armstead Hurley

Armstead Hurley arrived in Newport from Culpepper County, Virginia around 1886. 

He would soon establish a successful painting business along with being a founding partner in the Rhode Island Loan & Investment Company, the first black-owned bank in Rhode Island. 

He owned many rental properties on Cross, Thames, Mary and Division Streets. He was also Treasurer of the Shiloh Baptist Church.

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7. Andrew J. Tabb

Andrew Tabb arrived in Newport around 1881 as part of the staff of Newport socialite, Madame C. O’Donnell. 

Within several years he established one of the city’s largest livery stables and coaching services at 28 Edgar Court serving the transportation needs of the summer residents.

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8. Dr. Marcus F. Wheatland

Born in Barbados, Wheatland arrived in Newport in 1894, perhaps due to his association with two notable African American men, M. Alonzo Van Horne and George T. Downing. Wheatland married Irene De Mortie, the granddaughter of Downing.

Licensed to practice medicine in Rhode Island in 1895, he is considered to be the first known African American physician to live and practice in Newport.  He became the first doctor in Newport to use the X-ray machine as a diagnostic tool.

He served as the 11th President of the National Medical Association.

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9. Dr. M. Alonzo Van Horne, DDS

Son of Rev. Van Horne, Alonzo Van Horne was born at 47 John Street in Newport in 1871 and graduated from Rogers High School and Bryant Business College in 1889.

He graduated from Howard University Dental College in 1896, he became the first African American dentist in Rhode Island with offices at 22 and 166 Broadway.

Van Horne was a founding member of Newport Branch NAACP and several other civil rights and civic organizations. 

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10. Reverend Henry N. Jeter

Rev. Jeter was a Baptist minister and social justice activist at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Newport for 42 years. He was also a member of the National Afro-American League. The former Shiloh church building still stands at corner of Mary and School Streets. 

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Learn More About African American History Month

Smithsonian Education – Black History Month

National Park Service – African American Heritage

National Archives – African American History Portal

National Endowment for the Humanities – African American History and Culture

National Park Service – African American HeritageUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum – Black History Month

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