Fannie Scott’s obituary (Newport Mercury-1/16/1926) provides some intriguing information. “She came to this town over 60 years ago from the South, when the late Joseph Macomber went there and returned with 16 slaves.”  It raised a number of question in my mind.  Who was Joseph Macomber and why did he bring 16 “slaves” up to Portsmouth?  Who were the others that came with Fannie Scott.  She lived a long life in Portsmouth.  What was the experience of these people in our Portsmouth community?

Who was Joseph Macomber and why would he bring former slaves to Portsmouth?  Like many in Portsmouth, Joseph was a farmer.  He was born in 1822 in Vermont and his parents are listed in the census as French Canadian.  He taught in Portsmouth public schools to pay his way through the Friends School on the Hudson in New York and then taught in Portsmouth two more years after completing his education.  He became a farmer working at first for Bateman Monroe.  Macomber became a fruit grower and one of the largest strawberry farmers in Newport County.  He was also a very dedicated member of the Society of Friends.  This connection with the Friends may provide one reason for the trip to the South.  After the Civil War many Quaker groups reached out to help the freed slaves.  Was this Macomber’s goal in bringing 16 former slaves to Portsmouth?  I haven’t found the answer, but the records of the Portsmouth Friend’s Church or Macomber family stories may help us understand his action.  Many of the people he brought with him were also very dedicated to the Friends Church in Portsmouth.

1870 – Macomber Household

Who were the sixteen that came with Macomber?  From the 1870 census we have some clues.  In a previous blog I told the story of the Ayler family.  Among those living on Macomber property were Morgan and Matilda Ayler and their children Robert, Edward and Alice.  Daniel Ayler was another son, but he doesn’t appear on the census.   Fannie Scott and her husband Robert Scott are there as well.  Fannie is listed as Martha Brent – but there were some difficulties with other names on that census.  Fannie is the sister of Matilda Ayler and in the 1880 census she is listed as being in the Ayler household.  Other Virginia born residents at Macomber’s farm are Frank and Mary Curtis.  We know from the obituary of William H. Parker (known as Billy) (Newport Mercury, 5/8/1936)  that he came at the same time as Morgan Ayler.  That accounts for 11 of the 16 listed as the number Macomber brought to Portsmouth.  Who were the others?  I can’t answer that without more information.  I am not even clear what date they came to Portsmouth.

How did these families fare in our community?  Many remained on Aquidneck Island for a long while.  The Ayler’s became successful farmers. See a previous blog for more on this family.

Frank and Mary Curtis settled in Newport.  After working for others, Frank had his own livery service at the corner of Powell Avenue and Kay Street.  “He was known as a thoroughly honest and reliable man, who was kept busy most of the time.  He never hesitated to answer a call at any hour of the day or night, regardless of the weather.” (his obituary – Newport Mercury 1/30/1915).

Billy Parker was a fixture in the Portsmouth community.  His obituary notes that “In the time of the Civil War he ran away from his home in the South and took care of an officer’s quarters.”  Records of the Freedman’s agency show him employed in barracks in Washington, D.C.   He also seems to have received a pension for his service.   John Pierce’s book Historical Tracts of the Town of Portsmouth has a short article on Billy.  It gives Billy a rather colorful background that I cannot confirm.  In Billy’s article it claims he worked in a restaurant opposite the Ford Theater and saw Abraham Lincoln carried out after he was shot.  He said his grandmother worked at the home of General Lee.  A newspaper article (Mercury  11/9/1934) has Billy as part of a parade by the “Portsmouth Protective League.”  The parade of 100 cars was led by William H. Vanderbilt and an orchestra in a truck.  The parade stopped at the home of Portsmouth’s oldest resident – Mrs. Emma Hicks.  At this stop Miss Cornelia Hicks was dressed as Martha Washington, Mrs. Lucy Anthony was dressed as George Washington and Billy Parker was in costume as Washington’s aide.  Billy lived in the Cozy Corners area of Portsmouth and spent the end of life with Alice Ayler Morris.

Robert and Fannie Scott were dedicated members of the Friends Church.  From newspaper articles it seemed that Robert continued to work for Joseph Macomber.  He died suddenly in 1914 and he was buried in the Friends Churchyard.  His widow Fannie at first went to live with Alice Ayler and then became a resident of the Home for the Aged Colored People in Providence.  This home was championed by Christina Bannister and was supported with funds from local black churches.   Local artist Sarah Eddy regularly hosted an outing at her Bristol Ferry home for the residents of The Home for the Aged Colored People.  Fannie died at this home and although her funeral services were conducted there, local Friends minister Elizabeth Trout conducted the services and Fannie was buried in the Friends churchyard next to her husband.

Whatever Joseph Macomber’s motivation was in bringing former slaves to Portsmouth, they became a real part of the Portsmouth community.  Most stayed close to the Quaker faith – a faith that they shared with Mr. Macomber and his family.