While the City by the Sea is known for its illustrious past – with tourists and locals alike flocking to its mansions and poring over Gilded Age glamor – for historian and activist Niko Merritt, the narratives most often circulating Newport’s famous streets and sites left something to be desired. “There was nothing I could relate to as a Black person. There was nowhere that I walked away from feeling a sense of pride or feeling like I belonged here,” Merritt explains.
Having moved around a lot when she was young and finding herself consumed with the history and culture of each place she lived, Merritt wanted to forge more authentic connections with Newport’s past by illuminating stories that have been erased over time. As founding executive director of Sankofa Community Connection, Merritt and a group of other history enthusiasts and community members created the award-winning Rise to Redemption Walking Tours.
“Because there was no history we could relate to and felt there must be so many untold stories out there, we began researching,” says Merritt. What they found were members of the African-American community, including former slaves Duchess and John Quamino, enriching Newport life dating back to the 18th century. “We talk about where they lived, where they worshiped, their family tree, experiences in Newport, so they can be seen as people and seen for their accomplishments.”
An immersive and interactive experience, Merritt wants tour-goers to be able to walk in these historic figures’ shoes and talk about how it connects to the present day. “We discuss how history impacts us,” she says. “We want you to feel a part of it and be able to empathize with the stories we share, putting yourself where they were and going back in time for a moment.”
Stemming from this need to unearth Newport’s lesser known Black history are the wider concerns facing the city that Merritt set out to address when she founded Sankofa Community Connection in 2016. “What I was hearing was that people felt unseen – there was no one [in leadership] that represented the Black community or embraced our culture. They also felt the impacts of the subtle yet palpable racism on display in Newport,” Merritt explains.
In their work dismantling inequalities and injustices still faced by the Black community today, Merritt and her organization began by creating space for open dialogue to happen. “We had a series of community conversations about racism and the impacts and we took it a step further to actually come up with solutions on how we can address this and make changes for the better.”
Because the work doesn’t end when we turn the calendar page on Black History Month, Sankofa Community Connection runs tours and other programming all year, including summer camps, after-school programs, and events for all ages. Their Cosmic Joy Club is an intergenerational self-care camp with a tagline of “We go places. We spread joy. We leave.” From painting with seniors to raspberry picking and teaching meditation to second graders, the program helped students create space for themselves and others. “We danced at the movie theater; we had a great time at the Newport Art Museum. We went to different places and practiced self-care techniques so that the young people know that they belong anywhere they want to be.”
Sankofa’s newest initiative, Crafting Across Cultures, is a place-based art program for youth, letting them learn from and create alongside working artists in the community. Merritt plans to chronicle these experiences with a documentary that will be screened in the city’s schools.
Whether engaging with residents through art and education or serving as a community health worker (which is just one of the many hats Merritt wears), her work with Sankofa is varied but interconnected, the city’s history informing today’s efforts. When not heading programs and speaking at events, Merritt continues finding ways to carve out space for Black leadership in Newport, and is a current member of RI Foundation’s Equity Leadership Initiative cohort. “It’s important for the community to see people that look like them in leadership roles and we take great pride in what we do,” she shares.
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