Freedom’s House: A Legacy of Black Ownership in East Greenwich
By Virginia Schmidt Parker, MD
One of the most historic (1797) yet least imposing houses in East Greenwich, known as the “Blue House” or the “Ichabod Northup House,” sits at 110 Division Street. There are actually two structures, both painted blue, on that lot. The house abutting Division Street is well cared for and is currently used as the thrift shop for the First Evangelical Lutheran Church which sits next door. The smaller structure, which also looks like a house and sits behind and slightly southeast of the other, is what brought these houses to my attention. Best seen from Brayton Street, in 2020 there was a gaping hole in the sagging roof of the smaller structure. The structure was at the mercy of the elements and at risk of not making it through another winter. The outbuilding is not listed on the RI National Register of Historic Properties as is the main house, which is incorrectly listed as being built in 1850. The Historic District Commission and the Town Planners’ Office brought this problem to the attention of East Greenwich Historian Bruce MacGunnigle. Bruce, who contributed most of the original research (summarized below by me) on the first owners of the main house, referred the problem to us. It is still unclear when, and by whom, the smaller house was built.
Why are these houses important? One of the first owners of the house was a slave, Ichabod Northup, who won his freedom by fighting in six Revolutionary War battles as part of the Rhode Island Black Regiment led by Colonel Christopher Greene. The next owner, Solomon Fry, was the son of Winsor Fry, another freed slave, who fought in ten Revolutionary War battles. All of the owners of this house since 1816 have been either African American or Native Americans or both. They have all contributed to East Greenwich as it is today.
The house abutting Division Street was built in 1797 by Dan Taylor, a local “cabinet” or furniture maker. He sold the house in about 1802 to the Coggeshalls. Subsequently the Shippee and Collins families owned it. In 1816, Ichabod Northup purchased the house.
Ichabod Northup was born about 1745, enslaved on the North Kingstown plantation of either Emmanuel Northup or his son John. Their plantation lay south of what is now Wickford. At Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-8 (East Greenwich) General James Mitchell Varnum convinced General George Washington to allow the formation of a Rhode Island regiment of Black slaves and Indians. One of the Northups sold Ichabod to the “assembly” for 120 pounds and Ichabod enlisted in the Continental Army March 1, 1778 with the promise that if he survived the War he would be a free man. He trained at a field adjacent to what is now Glenwood Cemetery and joined with the “Black Regiment” (First RI Continental Regiment) in the Battle of Rhode Island August 29, 1778. October 14, 1781 Ichabod was captured at Croton, New York by the British on the same day that his Regimental Commander Col. Christopher Greene was killed. Ichabod was taken prisoner and held in New York for 2½ years, until the end of the War. At some point he was paid “$227 doler(s).” He returned to Rhode Island in October 1783. November 1786 he married Marcy George in North Kingstown. There is no known marriage certificate in the North Kingstown records. Per Governor William Greene, Jr.’s account book, Ichabod worked on the Greene Warwick Neck Farm during 1792-4. Per Thomas Tillinghast, Jr.’s day book (1797-1805) he and Winsor Fry (another Revolutionary War veteran) were either paid or sold something or had their medical services paid for sometime during that time by Thomas Tillinghast Jr. (rihs.org/msinv/PeopleofColorweb.htm). Ichabod and Marcy raised a family. Per the 1790 census of East Greenwich, Ichabod had a household of seven persons “all…free.” In 1800, the census lists him with a household of nine “non-white” persons: 3 boys ages 0-20, 3 girls ages 0-16, two women ages 16-26, and a woman aged 26-45 “as well as six other free persons.” In 1816, then listed as a “laborer,” he purchased the lot, 19 year old house, and “appurtenances at 110 Division Street from John and Mary Mawney for $300. Two years later, in 1818, he applied for a military pension, claiming that he was lame due to frostbite suffered during the time he was enlisted. He claimed that he had been unable to work for the previous three years, i.e. at least a year before he bought the house at 110 Division Street and that “his house was much out of repair.” In March 1818, he commenced receiving a pension of $96 per year.
Ichabod’s will, written in 1816 (summarized by Bruce MacGunnigle in his September 2008 RI Genealogical Society Rhode Island Roots article), lists bequests to his wife as well as daughters Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, Priscilla, Penelope, Phebe, Lucy and Marcy and his “dwelling house to his sons Ichabod and Cato.” It also mentions a son “Jack Allen.” His estate was valued at $141.00 when his will was proved in September 1821. Ichabod lived in the 110 Division Street house for five years before dying there at age 78.
Ichabod’s son Ichabod (1790-1884) became one of the most prominent persons in the Black community of Providence, Rhode Island. In 1826, with George Willis, Peter Browning and Alfred Niger (per CJ Martin “The Mustard Seed”: Providence’s Alfred Niger, Antebellum Black Voting Rights Activist” in Small State Big History 8/1/2020), Ichabod Northup formed a Black Masonic lodge in Providence. He was very active in the Black suffrage movement and desegregated schools in Providence, stating that Blacks who paid taxes to support the schools should not have their children be denied access to the schools. In 1842, Northup and others pushed to make Rhode Island the first State to grant voters rights to African Americans.
In 1833, Solomon Fry purchased the house from Ichabod Northup’s heirs. Despite the fact that the house is known as the “Ichabod Northup House,” Solomon lived there for twenty four years.
Solomon Fry (“1780”-1866) was the first and only known son of Lucy (a Pequot Indian) and Winsor Fry. Winsor was a freed East Greenwich slave (formerly of Thomas Fry) who fought in ten Revolutionary War battles before returning to settle in East Greenwich. Because of his enlistment papers, service record while in the Continental Army, and pension records we know a fair amount about Winsor Fry. Unfortunately, there appears to be little written about Solomon. He was born (the date was never recorded) in East Greenwich in 1780 or 81, about the time that Winsor went AWOL from the Army and later that year was caught stealing beef, candles, and rum from the Commissary’s store. Was Winsor trying to meet his pregnant or newly delivered wife? Had he heard that his family was starving and was trying to help them? We will never know.
Solomon was one of many children. He apparently never learned to read nor write. He married Hagar Sherman (1785-1861) and they had their first child, Job, between 1800-02. According to Barbara Toney, Solomon’s three times great granddaughter, Solomon’s father Winsor lived on and off with Solomon (“he kept returning to North Kingstown”) until about the time Job was born. Per the censuses of 1830-60, Solomon worked as a “laborer.” Was he a carpenter? He and Hagar had at least five children, two of whom died in infancy. His father Winsor died when he was 43. He bought 110 Division Street in 1833 when he was about 53 years old. The 1830 census shows him living with Hagar and a male age 10-23, perhaps his son James who was born in 1816. Thirteen years after purchasing the house at 110 Division Street, in 1846 Solomon bought ¼ acre of land at 82 Division Street for $100 and built a house there. Two years later he passed that house to his son Job and wife Emma. The 1850 census lists Solomon as owning $800 of real estate. At one time his daughter Sarah’s son Wanton Boyd lived in the house at 110 Division Street. Thus the connection with current East Greenwich Historic Preservation Society member Barbara Boyd Toney. Wanton served in the Civil War in Company F of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. Eight of Solomon’s grandsons and five of his granddaughter’s husbands fought in the Army of the Republic in the Civil War.
In 1857, Solomon built another house and sold “a parcel of land next west of where he then lived on Division Street, and what is now Rector Street to his daughter Emeline Fry for $200 (Thaire Adamson; The East Greenwich Packet Vol. 10 No. 4 Nov. 1986). Neither the 1855 East Greenwich Walling map nor the 1870 Beers atlas show a house in that spot, but the rear structure is shown there on the 1879 Baily and Hazen Bird’s Eye view. At that time, however, there are no windows shown in the “house.” “The land was bounded west on the land of Harriet Mathewson, south on the land of George Brayton, east on the land of Solomon Fry and north on Division Street” (T. Adamson; The East Greenwich Packet Vol 10 No. 4 Nov. 1986). Solomon’s wife Hagar died in 1861. A son William Thomas Fry died the following year. In 1865, Solomon was living with Emeline and her husband James Chambers. It is unclear whether they lived in one or both of the two structures at 110 Division Street. Solomon died in 1866. Despite an 1852 Town act that reserved “a right for Solomon Fry and his family to be buried in the burying ground upon said lot” adjacent to where the Glenwood Cemetery is now (i.e. the four acres containing the old training field where his father Winsor Fry was buried), Solomon and Hagar are buried in the East Greenwich Cemetery on First Avenue.
We know little about Emeline’s time in the house(s) at 110 Division Street. In the 1880 census she is listed as a cook. After her death in 1903 the mortgage holder put the land and buildings at 110 Division Street up for public auction. Emma J Ammons (daughter of Narragansett Indian Sachem and Tribe President Gideon Ammons) was the highest bidder and bought the property for $300. The year previous to that Emma had bought land and buildings on Ropewalk hill.
Two years after she bought 110 Division Street, Emma married Alexander Powell who was listed in the 1880 census as a “coachman” and worked for the family of Dr. James Eldredge. Emma worked for various local people including the grandmother of EGHPS member Thaire Adamson. In 1920, as a property owner, Emma registered to vote in the first election where women were allowed to vote. She was active in the Swedish Evangelical Mission (subsequently Evangelical Lutheran) Church next door to her home. Emma and Alexander had one daughter, Harriet Powell Johnson. Emma lived in the house for 48 years until her death in 1941. She deeded her home to nephew Ralph Gardiner who died in 1957. Yet another Patriot, Ralph “served with the 807 Pioneer Infantry Regiment, an all African-American unit, during World War 1.” His grandfather “Benjamin was a member of the First R.I. Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment during the Civil War” (Clinton Gardiner reminiscence to me 8/4/20). When his wife Maude died in 1960 their sons (all World War II veterans) inherited the house. Their son Ronald (“Ronnie”) recalls visiting his Aunt Emma in the house “and hearing on the radio that Japan had just bombed Pearl Harbor… he remembers his mother’s concern that his three older brothers would likely be going off to war. Over the next two years, Elwood joined the Marines; Rodman joined the Army; and Lloyd joined the Navy (personal communication to me from Clinton Gardiner 8/4/2020). Elwood, and Rodman sold their shares to their brother Lloyd and his wife Audrey. After Lloyd died, Audrey lived in the house until her death in 2019. The Gardiner family continues to own the house and the outbuilding.
Clinton Gardiner is on the Board of the Newport Slave Medallion Project. I have suggested to him and Charles Roberts that 110 Division St should be nominated for a Slave Medallion. Not only was the house owned and occupied by a former slave and the son of a former slave but it has been owned continuously “by several Afro-American/Native American patriots and their descendants” for two hundred and twenty-four years (personal communication to me by Clinton Gardiner 8/4/2020). This house and its outbuilding/cottage should be celebrated and saved. Avoiding the Town’s wrecking ball, the smaller rear house was shored up, re-roofed and re-shingled in 2021. We are optimistic that it will last another 225 years.
Virginia Schmidt Parker, MD
President, East Greenwich Historic Preservation Society
Written with collaboration from Bruce MacGunnigle, Rachel Peirce, Barbara Boyd Toney and Clinton Gardiner