Sale of Providence building paused as historians look for possible link to slavery

Sale of Providence building paused as historians look for possible link to slavery


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence Preservation Society’s plans to sell a historic building have been put on hold amid an investigation into its possible ties to slavery.


The Shakespeare’s Head Building, also known as the John Carter House, was built in 1772. The Meeting Street building housed the city’s first newspaper, The Providence Gazette, throughout the colonial era.

Shakespeare’s Head was repurposed several times over the years, serving as a family home, boarding house, print shop and one of Providence’s first post offices.

The Providence Preservation Society started looking for someone to purchase the building earlier this year after it became clear that the nonprofit could no longer afford to maintain it.

“Over the last 20 years, the [Providence Preservation Society] has invested more than $300,000 in the restoration, repair and maintenance of Shakespeare’s Head and has stewarded restoration grants totaling nearly $100,000 from generous donors,” Providence Preservation Society Board of Trustees President Cathy Lund explained. “We feel proud of the work we have done.”

Lund added that maintaining historic buildings and house museums “has never been a part of [the Providence Preservation Society’s] mission.”

Marisa Brown, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, told 12 News it has since been brought to their attention that the building had been home to enslaved African Americans and may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Brown said the Providence Preservation Society is conducting “a thorough review” into whether the building has connections to slavery.

“We know that so much of Black history in our country has been unrecorded, lost and erased, so we may not be able to come to a conclusive understanding of how these spaces were used, but we are committed to uncovering as much as we can about this history with the assistance of field experts,” she said. “Often, the field of preservation has omitted histories like this by failing to advocate for significant sites of Black history or by attending to some group’s stories and not others. This particular part of Shakespeare’s Head’s history needs to be acknowledged and understood more fully, and we are determined to make that happen.”

Brown said research has revealed that there are two spots in the basement of the building that were most likely used as so-called “slave pits.” Those same spaces may have also been used years later as stations along the Underground Railroad, she added.

The vast majority of the building remains in its original state, according to Brown, though it’s not exactly clear what each room’s purpose was. She said an architectural historian will be visiting Shakespeare’s Head in the coming weeks to survey the building for signs of slavery.