By the time I met with activist, musician, and labor historian, Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, at the John Brown House last week, both of his upcoming tours had sold out. ‘A People’s History Tour of the John Brown House Museum’ will focus on pre-industrial 18th century Rhode Island, centering on the slave trade and its attached industries in building the economy and politics of the state. But I still wanted to know how the co-founder of one of my favorite local bands, Downtown Boys, had ended up working with the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) in one of its most venerated properties. And it seems possible that more tours could be scheduled.
Mr. DeFrancesco first made a name for himself in 2011 with his “Joey Quits” video in which his then bandmates in the What Cheer Brigade helped him quit his job at the Providence Renaissance Hotel. The video landed him on the Today Show and now has over 6 million views. We now know that Joey was leaving for his new position as a program developer and interpreter at the Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket where he still works. Downtown Boys was formed in 2012, quickly developing a devoted local fan base then getting noticed nationally. Their recent album Cost of Living (SubPop) combines revolutionary ideals with boundless energy. The band has three dates coming up in November and December, opening for Mitski at Brooklyn Steel. DeFrancesco is also the editor of Spark Mag, an online platform for politically motivated musicians.
The following interview was conducted in the carriage room of the John Brown House Museum and has been edited for clarity and to make my questions sound smarter. I would like to thank Geralyn Ducady and Kelvis Hernandez for their assistance and letting me in out of the rain. And while the museum does have a room devoted to the horrifying story of the slave ship The Sally, the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) should be commended for further supporting this examination into the source of the wealth that built the mansion.
Tell me about the tour you will be giving at the John Brown House Museum and how it dovetails with the tours you have been giving at Slater Mill.
For the last five years I’ve been giving the slaver history and the people’s history tour at the Slater Mill in Pawtucket. Slater Mill was the first successful cotton factory built in the United States, built in the 1793, so that’s really the beginnings of industrial capitalism in the U.S. is right here in Pawtucket. On that tour we talk about the beginnings of capitalism via these cotton factories in Rhode Island intersected with the southern cotton economy. Up north this was the demand side buying up this southern cotton, so it’s very directly linked with slavery.
We talk about early resistance . . . early unions, the first factory strike in U.S. history was in Pawtucket, around these same factories in 1824. So that tour covers that early industrial period from 1790 to 1830, and doing that tour for a while you begin to study further and further back to understand where the factories came from, where the people involved came from, where the money came from, and you begin to see all these other deep and often nefarious connections within the state of Rhode Island to where that industrial money is coming from. And the most direct link in this case is Moses Brown. Moses Brown financed Slater Mill and financed a lot of other factories in the area. Moses Brown is of course the brother of John Brown whose mansion we’re in right now. And you go back further and you see that a lot of the Brown family money came for one, directly from the slave trade, but then also indirectly through all these other industries they were involved in like: rum distilling, gin distilling, candlemaking, ironworks. All this, the economy of Rhode Island in this pre-industrial period in the 18th century, is either directly or indirectly linked with the slave trade. And so you begin to follow that money deeper and see all of these other families in Rhode Island who are also linked into this same slave trade economy, like the DeWolf family, the Hopkins family . . . Newport, Bristol, Providence, all of them in this mercantile system in the 18th century were very directly linked into the slave trade and you see how they took that money and transferred it into industrialization later in the time period I’m talking about at Slater Mill.
So this tour is going to fully explore that Rhode Island economy before industrialization, how these people who then created the beginnings of industrial capitalism actually made their fortunes in the time period preceding industrialization.
Who came up with the idea of a new tour in the John Brown House?
I actually pitched it to them. Again, I had been doing it at Slater Mill for a while and wanted to expand this programming because I think public history — throughout the country, but especially New England — suffers from ignoring a lot of history of historical importance. Especially [that history] which might frame these people, who everything in the state is named after, in a different light. This is true throughout this state.
You go to Linden Place in Bristol which is the DeWolfs’ mansion — this family was the biggest slave-trading family in history— and they mention that it, that it was a slave-trading family, but 95% of the tour is look at this pretty chandelier or look at this expensive chair. So it is lacking in public interest. I wanted to expand what we had been doing at Slater Mill to other museums and this seemed like a natural choice to do it here: both because of the direct familial link to Slater Mill via Moses Brown and John Brown, but also, it’s just such a decadent place to visit, to be able to talk about this history directly in this context, amongst this wealth, in more depth . . . so I approached the museum. They were interested, Slater Mill was interested in having this other tour as well. And then working with Rhode Island Council for the Humanities to get funding to do the research and put on the tours. And all those things came together so we were able to do it here.
I see that the time frame is 1700 to 1790. Why would that be a significant period of time?
So we wanted to cover the 18th century cutting at 1790. It’s not a strict date but viewing the 1790s as the beginning of industrialization — the beginning of Slater Mill also — this is kind of going up to that period at Slater Mill. We will talk a little about post-1790 because families like the DeWolfs continued deep into the slave trade well into the 19th century as well. So we will go past 1790, but it’s just a neat frame when talking about pre-industrial 18th century RI.
I saw the name Aaron Biggs mentioned as being a character of focus on the tour. How did you learn about him and research him? Was there much to found in archives and books?
So this is a person who was involved in the very famous, and infamous, Gaspee Affair. He was an enslaved person in Rhode Island who escaped to the British side in the immediate pre-Revolution period, so we’re talking about his story. He became the center of the Gaspee story because all of the elite in Rhode Island were rallying around John Brown who was one of the leaders of the Gaspee Affair, where they lit a British customs enforcing ship on fire. This is regarded as an important event leading up to the American Revolution, which is now hailed as this great heroic deed that John Brown and all his friends participated in. If you zoom out a little bit, you can see more that John Brown and his other merchant friends were having all these issues with these British customs ships because the British customs enforcement ships were getting on them about their involvement in the slave trade. These merchants didn’t want to be paying British taxes on their boats, which were trading illegally in many cases in the West Indies, and then returning to Rhode Island. They attacked this British ship so they could preserve their freedom to maintain this illegal trade. So that is maybe cynical, but I think a more realistic way to look at it. Involved in all of this comes to be this man Aaron Biggs who was involved in the trial claiming to be a witness to John Brown. So everyone else said “We don’t know who did this.” But this guy said he saw these people do it — he was of course an enslaved person who had escaped to the British side. So I think it’s significant to just think about his perspective of what the freedom that John Brown was taught, and his friends the elite merchants were talking about, actually meant to common people in Rhode Island, particularly enslaved African and indigenous people. Those kind of words of freedom meant much much more.
Did you see the DeWolf family documentary, Traces of the Trade? How do you interpret their efforts?
I think the efforts of white people to grapple with this history are extraordinarily important — that’s what I’m doing — but especially these sites that are these wealthy white people. It’s important for people to interrogate the history. I think the DeWolf documentary was troubling in a lot of ways. I think the bits where they traveled back to the coast of Africa and Cuba were just weird and unnecessary to the whole thing, and in some ways reinforced the narratives they were trying to tear apart. I of course think these people should . . . engage in paying reparations in grappling with this history, and I think Bristol needs to do that.
Like, Linden Place is one thing, and then you go three blocks down to the water and the DeWolf Tavern, which is a fancy restaurant, named after the biggest slave-trading family in U.S. history, and there’s weddings and parties there. It’s literally housed in a warehouse that DeWolf used to chain slaves in a dungeon that was in the basement. This is a horrific site. You can make the argument that we should remember that site, but the idea that we should have a restaurant that people party at in this place is sort of disgusting. It speaks to the lack of real public historical acknowledgement of these issues that that continue to exist in Bristol.
I think there’s good pieces of the DeWolf documentary, but we need to move a lot further to talk about this stuff. I don’t think it’s useful to compare historical atrocities. But think of another atrocity and would you think to put a partying restaurant on that site? It’s unthinkable. But that’s Rhode Island . . . that’s New England, we think we are better and more advanced than those people down south are terrible with their Confederate monuments. We have also this horrific history here that we’ve totally failed to grapple with.
Anything to add about the tour you have planned? How long will it be?
It will be about an hour. This one is free because of the generous funding of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. Both of these are sold out, but we will hopefully be doing more in the future.
The tours given here already reflect on John Brown’s complicated past, but the history you will be sharing is quite incriminating. Was the museum always comfortable with your material?
The museum has been very good with allowing me to have this tour, supporting this with getting the grants. Geralyn has been a great help, helping me get materials, looking over my tour. The museum has this whole exhibit on The Sally which was the Brown brothers most infamous slave voyage. I think in museums there are a lot of people involved, there’s boards, individual interpreters — certainly what I’m going to be saying is different with a much different emphasis than what’s usually said here.
You came to prominence locally with the ‘Joey Quits’ episode. Was that when your interest in workers’ rights and labor issues developed? Were your parents focused on labor issues?
No not at all. I’ve been involved in organizing for a long time. Then I was working at the Renaissance and more directly involved in the union fight there. When I left the hotel via that video, the job I was going to was actually at Slater Mill. So I was coming into that job directly via this labor fight and got there and was getting involved in history and reading more about it and was finding the typical tour there to be lacking from talking about workers and labor rights. Definitely going into that job immediately after that maybe fixed a certain lens on that. So I didn’t get the job at Slater Mill intending to do this new programming, but got into it via having this museum job and got very into it. At Slater Mill I’ve been giving tours five years, there’s a special exhibit there on the strike of 1824, and the anniversary which was fantastic to have. I’ve written about this stuff a little bit. I’ll have a little more time now that the band’s not touring as much, and trying to expand this programming and do more on public history in Rhode Island, because I think again it’s sorely lacking in New England.
We have a deep historical imagination of ourselves, but a lot of that is inaccurate and needs to be remedied.
The front parlor . . . is that a focus of your tour for some reason?
In that room you see some distinct Rhode Island furniture, this is emphasized highly on the usual tour. In particular in that room there is a corner chair that’s a Goddard-Townsend corner chair, the famous Newport furniture makers who ushered in this New England style furniture, with their trademark ball-and-claw foot. These pieces are worth millions of dollars now. So these are highlighted on the tour, but I wanted to take those ideas and talk about the social ramifications around these pieces.
These furniture makers working in Newport — and in this time period Newport was the capital politically and economically of Rhode Island . . . it’s also probably the most significant slaving port in the U.S. — so I want to take these pieces, like the Goddard-Townsend chair, and thinking about what this actually means . . . what were the social ramifications of this chair?
Newport had a very large population of free and enslaved black people — you had the country’s first African union society, the country’s first black graveyards, all these significant characters in cultural and political life in Newport — and a lot of that history is erased. When you think of Newport today you think of mansions, and that’s part of it too, but this history is obviously very important.
Then you think of the chair itself . . . a lot of these pieces are made out of mahogany. Where does mahogany come from? It comes from the Caribbean, particularly Cuba. Cuba was a central node in the triangle trade that Rhode Island is deeply involved in, and mahogany was one of the items coming back up to Rhode Island when slavers from Rhode Island were trading slaves on these islands. That’s what we are really going to be doing on the tour . . . using some of the extraordinary pieces in this house as frames to then discuss the broader social and political realities of this time period.
The two scheduled tours for October 4th are sold out. We will let you know if more are scheduled.