PPS Pauses Intended Sale of Shakespeare’s Head Building

Published in Announcements.

Providence Preservation Society Pauses Intended Sale of Shakespeare’s Head Building to Investigate the Building’s Connection to Slavery and the Underground Railroad

1772 Building Was Home to Enslaved African Americans in the 1770s and 1780s and May Have Been a Stop on the Underground Railroad in the 19th Century.   

The Shakespeare’s Head building (1772) at 21 Meeting Street has long been considered a Providence landmark for its age, its beloved garden, and its history. In the colonial era, the three-story clapboard building housed Providence’s first newspaper and served over the years as a family home, boarding house, and print shop, as well as the city’s first post office.  The building was owned and stewarded for close to fifty years by the Shakespeare’s Head Association, founded in 1937 by a small group of civic-minded neighbors who organized to save the building when it was threatened with demolition after sitting vacant for a number of years. It was transferred to PPS and the Junior League of Rhode Island in 1985 when the Association began to decline, and in 2015, PPS became the sole owner of the building. For more than 80 years, Shakespeare’s Head has housed many organizations: it has been home to the Girl Scouts, the Federation of Garden Clubs and the Providence Revolving Fund, in addition to PPS and the Junior League, as well as a number of artists who have leased studio space on the second and third floors.

But Shakespeare’s Head has another history – one that has not been adequately explored. In 2018, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission published an amendment to the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the College Hill Historic District, which was first written in 1970. This recent amendment consists of a 77-page history of College Hill with new research that centered on the lives of African American and Cape Verdean residents of this neighborhood – too often erased from local history – as well as a bibliography, maps and photographs of significant sites. According to this report, John Carter, who was Shakespeare’s Head’s first owner, “enslaved African Americans” in the building and freed them from slavery in 1789. The report lists several other homes on College Hill in which African Americans lived enslaved, and about ten that listed African American residents but did not specify their status. According to the report, “In 1776, people of African descent were 9.5% of the total population of the East Side of Providence… Almost a quarter of all East Side families (101 of 431, or 23.4%) had people of color in their households, almost certainly working as enslaved, indentured, or free domestic servants.”

Architectural plans of Shakespeare’s Head, completed by the National Park Service as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in 1936, include references to two locations in the basement that may have housed enslaved people or those fleeing slavery via the Underground Railroad, marked as “probable slave pits.” The plan notes that in three locations, there were bars on one exterior and two interior windows when the plans were completed in 1936. The written documentation produced at the time notes, “The house was a general meeting place for influential settlers, and, so legend has it, dungeons in the cellar were used in the famous ‘underground system’ of aiding slaves to escape to Canada from bondage of the South.” Similar references to the building’s connection to the Underground Railroad can be found in secondary sources in the 20th century but PPS is not yet aware of substantiated information that it served this purpose. The HABS collection consists of drawings, documentation and photographs of more than 43,000 historic sites in the country.   

PPS leadership became aware of this significant history after studying the HABS documentation this week. PPS staff then began a review of archaeological scholarship on slavery to understand the possible histories held in Shakespeare’s Head. Some archaeological studies interpret what are referred to as “subfloor pits” to have served as root cellars, storage places, African ancestor shrines or domestic chambers for enslaved people, while others suggest that the term bears a connection to the Underground Railroad. This research has only just begun – it may be that these basement-level spaces served both as dwellings for the people that John Carter enslaved  in the 1770s and 1780s and, years later, served as stations on the Underground Railroad.  It may also be that the enslaved people who made their home at 21 Meeting Street lived elsewhere in the house and these spaces served other purposes (semi-finished attics during this period often contained slave quarters).

PPS Executive Director Marisa Angell Brown said, “PPS is pausing the sale of Shakespeare’s Head to conduct a thorough review of the building’s connections to slavery and, possibly, the Underground Railroad. 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. 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 added, “In its 2021 Strategic Plan, PPS prioritized research and programs related specifically to Black heritage on College Hill, and several projects are already underway. While this is a significant omission in our own institutional knowledge, we do see an opportunity through this review to address Black erasure and foster critical conversations about history and place.”  

PPS issued a request for proposals for the purchase of Shakespeare’s Head on April 30 following a Board decision in 2023 to authorize the sale of the building. More information about PPS’s review of the history of Shakespeare’s Head will be made available over the coming weeks.

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