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Newport Gardner letter to Sarah Burk

Biographical note

Newport Gardner was born Occarmar Marycoo in 1746 in Africa. He was brought to Newport, Rhode Island as a slave around 1760, at approximately 14 years old. The ship captain who was entrusted with his care sold him to another ship captain, Caleb Gardner. Although Caleb Gardner changed Occarmar’s name to Newport Gardner, Gardner continued to use his given name, Occarmar, throughout most of his life.

Within four years of arriving in Newport, Gardner learned English, French, and the basics of music. Gardner became an accomplished musician. By the time he was 18, he had composed an anthem using words from the prophet Jeremia. He published many pieces and also taught music, a service for which he was paid. By 1796, Newport Gardner married a woman named Limas and had four children.

Records indicate that in 1791 Gardner and a few friends won almost $2,000 in a lottery. Using the funds from his music lessons and his share of the lottery winnings, Gardner was able to secure his freedom in 1792. After establishing a house on Pope Street, Gardner supported his family by teaching music. During this time, he became close with Dr. Samuel Hopkins of the First Congregational Church. Hopkins kept a room on High Street, now Division Street, and it was here that the first meeting gathered to form a society "where the Negro might worship God without segregation." From this gathering was born the Free African Union Society, the first black cultural society in the United States. Gardner served as its first president.

In 1805, Gardner helped establish a counterpart to Free African Union Society for women, the African Female Benevolent Society. This group renames itself the African Benevolent Society and includes both male and female members. The ABS financed and administered a school for African-Americans which Gardner helped run.

In 1824, Gardner became a deacon of the Colored Union Church.

Towards the end of his life, Gardner became involved with the Back-to-Africa movement that encouraged African-Americans to return to Africa. He sailed to his homeland in 1826 with his sons, members of the African Union Society, and several neighbors. He was aided in these efforts by Dr. Samuel Hopkins and Ezra Stiles of the Second Congregational Church. He and several of his followers became ill and died shortly after arriving on the African coast, and their goals were not achieved. Garnder died in Africa at the age of 80.

References:

Bernard, Akeia. (2008). The Free African American Cultural Landscape: Newport, RI 1774-1826. Unpublished dissertation. University of Connecticut: Storrs, CT.

Newport Historical Society. (2012). Self Guided Walking Tour. Newport, RI.

Stokes, Theresa Guzman. (2005). A Visual Remembrance: African Slave Markers in Colonial Newport. The Write Design.