HOW DID SLAVES MAKE THE TRANSITION TO FREEDOM IN RHODE ISLAND?:

THE REVEALING CASE OF ROBERT

In December 1789 and December 179, the Providence Court of Common Pleas heard two cases both titled Robert v. Godfrey Wainwood. These two cases represented the culmination of Robert's efforts to become a free man.

Born as a slave in Virginia, Robert ran away from his master in the spring of 1781 with the hopes of obtaining his freedom by serving in the British army during the American Revolution. However, Robert never reached the British army and instead mistakenly boarded a French vessel. The French vessel traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, where Godfrey Wainwood purchased Robert at an auction. The two signed an agreement that Robert would become free after serving Wainwood for a period of years, but, rather than waiting for his indenture to end, Robert ran away in May of 1789. Perhaps Robert became impatient, or perhaps he felt that Godfrey Wainwood would not uphold the terms of the original contract. In response, Godfrey Wainwood attempted to regain possession of Robert by having him arrested for theft.

A legal battle then ensued. After negotiating Robert's release from jail, Providence Abolition Society members helped Robert to initiate two suits against Godfrey Wainwood. In one case, Robert alleged that Godfrey Wainwood had violated the terms of their contract, while in the other case Robert accused Godfrey Wainwood of trespass. Records of these proceedings exist in the case files and record book of the Court of Common Pleas as well as in the minutes of the Providence Abolition Society. Collectively, these sources offer a detailed picture of one man's struggle to escape slavery.

Below is an outline describing the content of this site.

I. The background to the cases, written by Sara Damiano, contains information about slavery in Rhode Island and a more detailed chronology of Robert's experiences.

II. Robert v. Godfrey Wainwood (nonperformance of contract case)

  • The court's Record Book contains a summary of the case information as written by a court clerk
  • The Case File contains copies of witness depositions and other documents produced during the case.

III. Robert v. Godfrey Wainwood (trespass case)

  • The court's Record Book contains a summary of the case information as written by a court clerk.
  • The Case File contains copies of witness depositions and other documents produced during the case.

IV. The settlement between Robert and Godfrey Wainwood describes the terms accepted by both parties when they agreed to end all legal proceedings.

V. The Providence Abolition Society Book contains minutes of the Providence Abolition Society's meetings. These minutes include the Standing Committee's reports on Robert's case.

VI. The bibliography lists the primary sources used in the creation of this web site as well as lists of secondary sources by topic.