Voices from the Beinecke Library

Beinecke Acquires 18th-Century Prayer Book Belonging to Free Black Man from Rhode Island

Photo by Olivia Pollak, '16. Photo album can be viewed in the right sidebar.

The Beinecke has recently acquired a prayer book that belonged to Zingo Stevens, a free black man who lived in Newport, Rhode Island in the 18th century, although his exact date of birth and death are unknown.

Zingo was likely born in Africa or the West Indies and was brought to New England by his master, John Stevens, with whom he trained as a stonecutter. He took on his master’s surname; while some records suggest he retained his African name, Zingo, as a first name, elsewhere he is identified as “Pompe” Stevens. Zingo later attained his freedom and became a prominent engraver, perhaps best remembered for his tombstones carved for African-American residents of Newport.

The first slave ship arrived in Newport in 1696. The local economy was dependent on the Triangular Trade, as Newport was a major center of rum production, a commodity that was traded for slaves in Africa as part of a three-pronged exchange of rum, slaves, and sugar between Africa, the Americas, and New England. Most slaves brought to Newport were not consigned to the hard fieldwork typically associated with slave labor in the American South. Instead, most became skilled craftsmen, apprenticed to white master craftsmen to learn skills of the trade and the English language. Black apprentices were permitted to work on their own time for wages, once completing required duties. As households owned, at most, only a few slaves, blacks were often well integrated into their master’s household family structure, and they were generally treated more fairly than were their Southern counterparts.

In Newport, Zingo was employed as a stonecutter in Stevens’s shop, the John Stevens Shop, which still exists today on Thames Street in Newport and, founded in 1705, remains the oldest marble and granite works business in the United States.

Zingo became the principal stonecutter of gravestones for African American residents buried in the cemetery on Farwell Street in Newport. He also carved and engraved several stones — including that of his brother — in the “God’s Acre” section of the Newport Common Burying Ground.

While it is unknown how Zingo attained his freedom, he did eventually become a free man, moving to his own home on Poplar Street, a house that, according to Ron Potvin — who used to work at the Newport Historical Society as a special collections librarian — would have consisted of one or two rooms and a loft. Zingo likely lived in a neighborhood with other African-Americans, many of whom were probably relatives or familial relations.

Zingo later joined the African Union Society in Newport, an organization that strived to improve “the education and economic stature of Newport’s African population.”

Zingo was also a member of American theologian Samuel Hopkins’s ministry, the First Congregational Church of Newport. Hopkins preached the sinfulness of slavery and the slave trade, and he encouraged blacks to join his congregation. Some accounts suggest that Hopkins also helped slaves purchase their freedom from their owners.

Zingo was married three times. His first wife was Phillis (the spelling of her name varies, with alternative spellings: “Phyllis” and “Phylis”); records suggest that the couple had four children together. His second wife, Elizabeth, died at age 38. He outlived his third wife, Violet, at which point Zingo most likely moved to Providence.

Details on Zingo’s prayer book, “Psalms of David,” recently acquired by the Beinecke: 

Zingo’s prayer book is contained within a box, on whose spine the book’s title, “Psalms of David,” is imprinted in gold capital letters, along with the name “Watts.” The box is decorated with a red, brown, and blue speckled pattern.

The small psalm book has a leather cover streaked with several cracks that look as though they were etched with a knife, but are likely the result of age.
Zingo inscribed his name on the first page of the psalm book, a mark of ownership reading, “Zingo Steven’s BOOK. November the 12th MDCCLXXX 1780” in neat script.

The title page reads, “The Psalms of David, imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian STATE and WORSHIP. By I. Watts, D.D. The thirty-seventh edition.” The publisher: “Boston: Printed and Sold by John Boyles in Marlborough-Street, 1774.”

The book contains 237 pages of psalms. There are no annotations.

The publisher printed an advertisement in the back of the book that reads:

PRINTER and BOOKSELLER, next door to the Sign of the THREE DOVES in Marlborough-Street, Boston, would acquaint his FRIENDS and CUSTOMERS— That he constantly keeps for Sale a large Assortment of BIBLES, Testaments, Spelling-Book, Psalters and Primers, by the Groce, Dozen or single, most of which Books are printed by himself, and therefore can be sold CHEAP. — He also keeps an Assortment of Books in History, Divinity, &c.— A large Collection of small Histories for the Instruction and Amusement of YOUTH. —Stationary of all Kinds, and Blanks of all Sorts. —A variety of Tracts upon Church Government, particularly Mr. WISE.---------PRINTING, in its various Branches performed in the neatest Manner, with Care and Expedition. —Those who will favor HIM with their Custom may depend upon the BEST USAGE.

Just Published,
In one large Octavo Volume of 500 Pages,
and Sold by said BOYLE,
On various Practical and Important Subjects,
Pastor of a CHURCH in BOSTON.

Photos, research, and text by Olivia Pollak, Yale College '16.


Benard, Akeia, A.F. The Free African American Cultural Landscape: Newport, RI, 1774-1826. University of Connecticut, 2008.

Brennan, John T. Ghosts of Newport: Spirits, Scoundrels, Legends and Lore. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2007.

Crisp, Oliver D. and Sweeney, Douglas A., eds. After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Seeman, Erik. Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Ziner, Karen Lee. "Zingo Stevens: Newport Stonecutter." Providence Journal. Providence, Rhode Island, February 12, 1996.

by Olivia Pollak
February 13, 2014


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