Sabina Gray Lawton

Sabina Gray Lawton

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in Records 1805 – 1809

Mahala and Sabina lived in a different world from their father, Fortune. Free perhaps from birth or at least from a very young age, the two sisters represent a new generation of people of color who had to renegotiate what it meant to be free in a predominantly white New England. Like their parents, Mahala and Sabina chose to be baptized at the Old Stone Baptist Church in Tiverton, but by 1808 Mahala was making choices regarding her freedom of movement and her education that her parents could only have imagined.[1]

As a young adult Mahala left Little Compton and moved to Newport to enroll in the city’s African Free School from October 1808 to March 1809.[2] The school was one of the many organizations created by growing communities of newly free people of color in Newport and Providence. African-American community leaders worked tirelessly at this time to provide educational and economic opportunities for people of color and to advocate for greater equality before the law.[3] A generation before, Fortune Gray had no other options than to rely on the support of white community leaders to help him marry, become free and establish a home for his family. In this new era of developing freedom, Mahala and Sabina could look to social and political leaders of their own race for encouragement and assistance.

While she was at school in Newport, Mahala and her sister Sabina met the Lawton family, whose young men were also students.[4] Sabina was drawn to a young black mariner from Newport named William Wilson Lawton. The couple married, made a home in Newport and had two little boys together by 1820. A free older woman of color, likely William’s mother or Mahala’s step-mother Sarah Gray, lived with them for many years.[5]

The Gray sisters rented out their Little Compton property to neighbor Samuel Simmons while they lived in Newport. Sabina and William eventually sold the house and its one-acre lot in 1817 to Nathan Wilbur of Little Compton for $140. Nathan was a “housewright” or builder.[6] He paid Sabina and William $60 in cash and asked that they hold a mortgage for the remaining $80. Nathan promised to pay the Lawton’s what he owed them plus interest in one year’s time but was not able to pay his debt on time.[7] Sabina and William extended the loan for a while but in 1819 sold the mortgage to Joshua Sawyer, a Newport baker, for $86.76.[8] Mahala did not play any role in the sale of the property. She may have turned her share of the property over to Sabina, or she may have passed away by this time.

Sabina probably never expected to return to Little Compton when she sold her property on Long Highway, but she did come home again many years later as a widow. William passed away sometime between 1830 and 1840. Sabina continued to live in Newport with her sons, but when they left home, her thoughts returned to Little Compton and the extended family she left behind. By 1860 she had joined her niece Lucy, the daughter of her step-sister Elizabeth Thomas Collins. Sabina was only thirteen years older than Lucy, and for twenty years the two women lived together in the small house on Meeting House Lane that Lucy and Amey inherited from their parents. Just as Mahala and Sabina moved to Newport for opportunities they could not find in Little Compton, Amey and her husband Charles Simmons had moved to New Bedford.

In 1858, a month after their father’s death, Amey and Lucy divided their parents’ property between them.[9] Lucy kept the 30 acres and house on the south side of Meeting House Lane and farmed the land in order to support herself and Sabina. Sabina earned a small income by knitting.[10] When Sabina died in 1876, she was ninety years old. Her two sons most likely predeceased her, and Lucy became her heir inheriting the only item of value in Sabina’s estate inventory, a note for $100.[11]

Lucy saw to it that Sabina was buried in the last row of the Old Burying Ground on the Commons. Lucy’s parents were already buried there, along with several other free people of color. They have white marble stones inscribed with their names and dates. That section of the cemetery is known as “Slave Row,” but everyone in it with an inscribed stone was in fact free when they passed away. Lucy saved a place for herself in between her mother Elizabeth and her Aunt Sabina.

During Sabina and Lucy’s last few decades in Little Compton the town was almost exclusively white. In 1860 there were only two non-white households in Little Compton, Lucy and Sabina on Meeting House Lane on the far western side of town and the DeWolfs in Adamsville on the far eastern side of town. The DeWolfs had recently moved to town, and did not stay long. Their family included Charles a “mulatto” man born in Rhode Island, Anne a white Canadian woman, and their three “mulatto” children.[12] They were very likely connected to the Bristol slave trading family of the same last name.

Marjory Gomez O’Toole, Executive Director, LCHS

First published in “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold: Stories of Enslavement, Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island,” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2016.

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[1] James Newell Arnold. Rhode Island Vital Extracts, 1636-1850. Providence, RI: Narragansett Historical Publishing Company, 1891-1912. Digitized images from New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, MA. Tiverton Church Records. Accessed via Ancestry.com.

[2] List of Students at African Free School in Newport.

[3] Christy Mikel Clark-Pujara, “Slavery, Emancipation and Black Freedom in Rhode Island, 1652-1842.” PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2009.

[4] List of Students at African Free School in Newport.

[5] Federal Census Records from 1810-1840 for Newport, RI.

[6] Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 7, p. 31. Based on boundary descriptions the house was on the west side of Long Highway slightly north of Peckham Road in the “Simmons Hill” area.

[7] Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 7, p. 34.

[8] Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 7, p. 156.

[9] Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 12, p. 256-257.

[10] Federal and State Censuses for the period for Little Compton, including 1865 RI State Census.

[11] Probate Records for Sabina Lawton, Little Compton Probate Records, Book 12, p. 210-214.

[12] 1860 Federal Census for Little Compton, RI.