We love rare books not only for the stories told on their pages, but for the stories of the volumes themselves. The previous ownership of a book, known as provenance, can often be even more interesting than the book itself. Such is the case with one copy of The Psalms of David; though this book was common enough, one particular volume was owned by Zingo Stevens, formerly Pompe Stevens. Sold into slavery, Stevens apprenticed as a stonemason, earned his freedom, and helped to start the nation’s first self-help group for African Americans.
Apprenticeship with John Stevens
From the moment the first slave ship, the Sea Flower, landed in Newport, Rhode Island in 1696, the town embraced the slave trade. At that time, the city produced some of the best rum in the New World. Citizens traded the rum for slaves–then traded the slaves for molasses to make more rum. As the town grew, it became less dependent on rum and soon grew into a bustling urban center.
Thus, unlike their counterparts in the South, slaves in Newport usually entered apprenticeships and learned a trade. When Pompe Stevens arrived in the city, presumably from West Africa, he was bought by John Stevens, whose Christian name Pompe took per the custom of the time. Stevens’ family owned a prominent stonemasonry. The shop had opened in 1705 and continues to operate today; indeed it’s one of the longest running businesses in the United States.
Eventually Pompe worked alongside John Bull and John Stevens at the stonemasonry, primarily making headstones for African and African American members of the community. Pompe’s responsibilities included writing inscriptions on headstones, which certainly contributed to his literacy–extremely rare among slaves.
Pompe’s work shows up in the Newport Common Burial Ground. Interestingly enough, though the cemetery is segregated and blacks were thought never to do work on for white customers, Pompe clearly completed work for clients of both races. He signed many of the tombstones, including that of his own brother and of his first wife, Phyllis. Pompe, therefore, was one of the first known African-American sculptors.
Newport’s Unusual Culture
Unlike most cities in the colonial United States, Newport offered uncharacteristic tolerance and even sometimes celebration of African and African-American culture. This is evident in the cemetery, where tombstones bear traditional African names and likenesses. For example, when Pompe’s first wife, Phyllis died in childbirth, Pompe engraved an image of her cradling their infant and wearing typical African dress.
This tolerance may have been a manifestation of several factors. First, Newport was home to Quakers and several other religious minorities who openly opposed slavery. Theologian Samuel Hopkins even established a church where slave owners could not be members, and blacks could be full members. Second, because Newport slaves tended to be craftsmen rather than field hands, they earned slightly more status and were better equipped to buy their own freedom through trade work. And finally, slave owners tended to share their homes with their slaves, fostering a different kind of relationship.
This is not to say that slaves in Newport didn’t face oppression and prejudice; but the culture created a different dynamic than was often found in the South. The ornate headstone that Pompe carved for Phyllis was actually paid for by her owner, a situation that would scarcely have happened on a rural plantation.
By 1784, Rhode Island had actually begun to abolish slavery. Already, freed slaves had earned prominence in the community. Pompe Brenton, a cook for the Brenton family, earned his freedom and established himself as caterer and public leader. And Duchess Quamino bought her own freedom, goin going on to earn the nickname “Pastry Queen of Rhode Island.” Pompe gained his freedom when his owner John Stevens died in 1786. Stevens stipulated in his will that Pompe and his third wife, Violet, be set free. Pompe officially changed his name to Zingo after his liberation, though he’d been using the traditional African name for quite some time.
The African Union Society
Even before earning his freedom, Zingo had worked to further the African-American community of Newport. In 1780, he and Newport Gardner founded the Africa Union Society (AUS). The organization was the first self-help organization for African-Americans in the United States. The AUS offered the typical benefits of a mutual-aid society, such as support and loans after an illness or death and loans for buying property.
Some members of the organization also felt an incredibly strong connection to Africa and wanted to emigrate back there. Members of the AUS wrote letters to the federal government, asking for funding and inquiring about their ability to own land in Africa. In 1825, Gardner finally managed to return with a small group of AUS members, but died shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, the organization began to incorporate more religious elements. By 1824, the organization had changed its name to the Colored Union Church and Society, making it the first separate black church in Newport. The AUS played a vital role in recording the births, deaths, baptisms, and weddings of the African-American community, and it also offered opportunities for group worship.
Zingo’s literacy probably proved useful, as he could read hymns and scriptures and share them with the congregation. Thus his copy of Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament would have been an incredibly important book for Newport’s African-American community. Books of such provenance–owned by a literate revolution-era slave who was also an important public figure–are incredibly scarce.
Though we know few details of his life, Zingo’s book offers us an opportunity to glimpse into his life and get a deeper understanding of a pivotal period in American history. His voice verily comes alive as you turn its pages. Which rare books in your library have a similarly significant provenance?