Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Will the Real Pompe Stevens Please Stand Up?

A few months ago, I wrote a short post about Zingo Stevens, a slave belonging to the famous Newport stonecarver, John Stevens. At the time, I believed that "Zingo Stevens" was an alias of Pompe Stevens, a carver who is known to have signed at least two gravestones in Newport's Common Burying Ground. The readily available information indicated that such was the case, but after further investigation, I can present a solid case against this conflation of Zingo and Pompe.

Furthermore, I wish to make a strong statement against unsubstantiated claims that Zingo Stevens was a master carver who carved the gravestones dedicated to his three wives. In both cases, an admirable desire to celebrate African survivals and African-American agency has led researchers to make exhuberant conclusions that are not based in reliable evidence and, what is worse, to abandon a complex story of simultaneous domination and cooperation in favor of a simpler story of uncomplicated resistance.




Part I: Conflation, or, Are Pompe and Zingo Stevens the Same Man?

The first problem — the conflation of Pompe Stevens with Zingo Stevens — may have begun as a simple misunderstanding. In her 1927 book, Gravestones of Early New England and the Men who Made Them, 1653-1800, Harriette Merrifield Forbes tentatively hypothesized that Zingo was owned by famed stonecarver John Stevens III and “perhaps . . . helped him in his work.”  Though this speculation was both limited and reasonable, subsequent attributions have been less restrained. Keith W. Stokes and Theresa Guzman Stokes of Colonial Slave Cemetery, who have led preservation efforts for God’s Little Acre since 1984, run a website with photographs from the graveyard in which they say of the Pompey Lyndon stone,
This is a very historically significant marker because it is signed by Pompey Stevens at the bottom. Stevens was a slave and later free African stone cutter and when free, reverted back to his African name of Zingo. Today, he is recognized as America’s first African (American) artist.
This claim was repeated by Richard Youngken, a colleague of the Stokes’, in his 1995 pamphlet, African Americans in Newport, and became the basis of a Providence Journal-Bulletin article by Karen Lee Ziner in 1996.  The assertion that Pompe Stevens, “no longer a slave, . . . embraced his African name, Zingo,” was repeated in a 2006 article by Providence Journal staff writer Paul Davis, and again on the official website of the John Stevens Shop, which claims that Zingo Stevens not only carved gravestones, but signed them.  Because these unsubstantiated claims are readily available on the internet, they have quickly become received wisdom, even appearing in a 2008 dissertation by Akeia Benard of the University of Connecticut. 


The basis for this conflation seems to be that both men had the same last name and their lives may have overlapped chronologically. While it is true that other enslaved Newporters went by more than one name (ex: Occramar Mirycoo was also known as Newport Gardner), I have found no evidence that this is the case with Zingo and Pompe Stevens. I got in touch with Prof. Benard, but she based her conclusion on inference and a misunderstanding of the material evidence available in the form of gravestones (which I will explain in part II).

I have seen no evidence to support the claim that Pompe and Zingo Stevens were the same man. What is worse, there is abundant evidence that they were not. If Pompe did indeed “revert to his African name,” we could expect to see either a clear chronological demarcation between the two or evidence that one man was called “Zingo” in the black community and “Pompe” by local whites or some combination of these possibilities.  Instead, we find that records of their lives are imbricated chronologically and logically preclude conflation.

Zingo Stevens:

The first mention of Zingo Stevens appears in the journal of Cesar Lyndon, a fellow slave, who reports that he and a group of friends including Zingo Stevens and his first wife, Phyllis Lyndon, “took a pleasant ride out to Portsmouth” for a picnic on Tuesday, August 12, 1766. Zingo and Phyllis were formally married by the Revd. Samuel Hopkins on July 20, 1767, and had at least four children: Sarah (b. 1769), Pompey (birthdate uncertain), Charles (b. 1771), and Prince (b. 1773).  Zingo and his two older children, Sarah and Pompey, were baptized on March 4, 1770 into the Revd. Ezra Stiles’ church. In 1773, Stiles mentioned Zingo in his journal:
This day died Phylis a Negro Sister of our Church: I hope she had chosen the better part. Her Husband Brother Zingo, upon becoming religious and joining my Chruch, has an earnest Concern for his Wife and Children, and labored greatly to bring her into a saving Acquaintance with her Redeemer; and I doubt not his Endeavours and prayers were blessed to her saving Conversion.
After Phyllis’ death, Zingo married Elizabeth (d. 1779) and then Violet (d. 1803). He was named as “my Negro man Zingo” in the 1774 will of his owner, John Stevens II (not John Stevens III, as most attributions assume), which specified that he would be set “free and at Liberty” in 1785.  Over the next four decades, Zingo Stevens bought property, sued a Providence stonecarver for wages owed him, took an active role in the Free African Union Society, and left a will at his death in 1817.  In short, his life from 1766 to 1817 is incredibly well-documented.

Pompe Stevens:

We know much less about Pompe Stevens, but what is known does not fit Zingo’s life story. The first time Pompe’s name appears is on the gravestone of a one-year-old boy named Princ[e], the “Son of / Pompe Stevens / & Silva Gould,” who died on July 4, 1759. Six years later, a carver identifying himself as “P.S.” executed a gravestone for two-year-old Pompey Lyndon, and in 1768, he emblazoned his name on Cuffe Gibbs’ epitaph. (Note: The only other known Newport carver with the initials "P.S." was Phillip Stevens, who was murdered in 1736.)  Though there is no record of Pompe Stevens after 1768, and he was probably dead or absent by 1783, the year in which Silva Gould married Cudjo Vernon. 

Furthermore, Vincent Luti, who has done extensive formal analysis of the gravestones produced by all 18th-century Newport stonecarvers, has identified Pompe Stevens’ carving style as belonging to the William Stevens shop, rather than to the John Stevens shop, and argues that Pompe Stevens was almost certainly one of the four slaves owned by William, while Zingo was the lone slave listed as John’s dependent in 1774 and mentioned in his will.

Are Pompey and Zingo the Same Man?

We have evidence that at least two white men (John Stevens and Ezra Stiles) knew Zingo Stevens as “Zingo” many years before his emancipation, while Pompe Stevens referred to himself as “Pompe” when he had the greatest freedom to do so — on the gravestone he carved for his brother. Why would Ceasar Lyndon call this man "Zingo" in 1766 if he called himself "Pompey" in 1768? This evidence indicates that it is unlikely that Pompe "embraced his African name" after emancipation. It is much more likely that we are talking about two different men.

Furthermore, the timing of their marriages and the births of their children seem to indicate that Pompe and Zingo Stevens were not one and the same. It is certainly true that the marriages of slaves were unstable because of their legal relationships with their owners, but I have a hard time believing that Ezra Stiles would have married Zingo and Phyllis if Zingo had a marriage-like relationship with Silva Gould, a woman who bore Pompe Stevens' child in 1759 and was still alive in 1783.

Although I disagree with Luti’s assertion that the two men were separated by a generation and with his overwrought proclamation that “this conflation of Pompe with Zingo is the worst distortion in print,” I agree with his conclusion: Pompe Stevens and Zingo Stevens were two different people.

This post will be continued tomorrow with Part II: Zingo Stevens, Master Carver?

1 comment:

RJO said...

I'm persuaded. A nice little investigation.