On June 25, a College Hill mansion is bringing back the rent party.
Stages of Freedom, a nonprofit that builds community and programming around black life and culture in Rhode Island, is throwing a swinging 1920s-style fundraiser that revives a key tradition. “Black folks,” recounts Ray Rickman, the organization’s executive director, “used to have rent parties” – without savings or wealthy relatives, those running low on cash relied on their communities to pay the month’s rent. This party, rather than raising rent money, is a fundraiser to send children of color to swimming lessons.
The party will be held at the Bishop mansion, one of the towering, ornate buildings that overlooks Brown’s campus (a duplicate of its interior occupies several floors of the RISD Museum). Built in 1795, it has plenty of room for the palm readings, live jazz, soul food contest (with prizes for the tastiest offerings) and general 1920s-era revelry that will ensue at the event – perfect for an organization that works to spotlight joyful black history in the present.
Rent parties typically involved entire communities and would “attract major entertainment figures,” says Ray. Last year’s Harlem Rent Party, the organization’s first, was graced with visits from Billie Holiday and Zora Neale Hurston (actors Rose Weaver and Wanda Schell). This year Langston Hughes (Trinity Rep’s Joe Wilson Jr.) will be reading his poetry for the assembled party-goers.
Last year, Stages of Freedom paid for 311 students of color, ages 5 to 17, to attend swimming lessons at seven YMCAs throughout the state; this year, the organization hopes to send 400 into the pool. The program is designed to address a structural inequity that plays out in devastating numbers: as Stages of Freedom’s website states, “Black youth in Rhode Island drown at five times the rate of white youth,” a statistic related to “the exclusion of the African American community from our nation’s public pools.” The issue also manifests in employment: “The majority of people see swimming as fun,” Ray points out, “but you can’t be a firefighter or nurse if you can’t swim.” Stages of Freedom hopes to get 6,000 children swimming; this, Ray says, will mean one swimmer for every family of color in Rhode Island, who then can teach all of his or her relatives. The Harlem Rent Party is one dancing step closer to this goal.