Duchess Quamino was an enslaved pastry maker and entrepreneur in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary Era.
Also referred to as “Charity,” Quamino was born on the Gold Coast of Africa to a minor royal family. In the mid-eighteenth century she was taken captive, sold into slavery, and transported to Newport, Rhode Island, where she became a domestic slave in prominent attorney William Channing’s home.
Like many female slaves, Quamino was responsible for a variety of household activities. She particularly excelled in baking, a skill which would sustain her in later years. Quamino converted to Christianity while a slave of the Channing family. By 1769 she had married John Quamino, an African slave owned by Captain Benjamin Church. John later purchased his freedom with the earnings from a winning lottery ticket. The couple had at least three children—Charles (born in 1772), Violet (1776), and Katharine Church (1779).
The American Revolution disrupted Quamino's life in many ways. In the early autumn of 1779 she learned of her husband's death. He had enlisted as a privateer, presumably in an effort to earn enough money to purchase his wife's freedom and died in battle with the British in August. Now suddenly alone, Quamino gave birth to their last child, whom she named Katharine Church and baptized in October.
Quamino apparently had secured freedom for herself and probably her children by 1780. Local folklore suggests that she baked her way to freedom, using the Channings' oven to make pastries that she sold to locals. Like many newly freed blacks, Quamino remained in the same household as a servant, and she was entrusted to care for the family's newest member, William Ellery Channing. Born in 1780, he would later gain fame as a prominent Unitarian clergyman and abolitionist, possibly influenced by Quamino’s presence in his early life.
By 1782, Quamino established an independent household. At the same time, she was gaining local fame as a cake baker. Folklore has it that Quamino still used the Channings' large oven to bake for these events, and often expressed her gratitude by hosting members of the family for tea in her home.
When Quamino died at age sixty-five, her death offered a rare opportunity to bring black and white Newporters together. Fittingly, it was William Ellery Channing who wrote the effusive epitaph on her grave, which still stands in Newport's Common Burial Ground.
Read the full, original biography by Edward E. Andrews in the African American National Biography
Andrews, Edward E.. "Quamino, Duchess." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e1714 (accessed Thu Sep 05 10:34:57 EDT 2019).
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Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).
Sweet, John Wood. Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730–1830 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).
Youngken, Richard C. African Americans in Newport: An Introduction to the Heritage of African Americans in Newport, Rhode Island, 1700–1945 (Providence: Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission and Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, 1995)
James Almeida and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.