(Photo credit: Entrance to Roger Williams National Memorial, courtesy J. Stephen Conn, Flickr Creative Commons)
I always like it when I unexpectedly come across a memorial or monument when I’m visiting a city or town for the first time—especially when it commemorates someone or something I know next to nothing about. So it was a few years ago, when I was attending a film festival in Providence, Rhode Island, where a friend was having his movie premiered. Taking a break from the other weekend activities, my wife and I discovered a national park unit there we’d been completely in the dark about: Roger Williams National Memorial, authorized by Congress on October 22, 1965.
The memorial commemorates the life of Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams. Back in the 1630s, following his arrival in Boston from England, Williams began to paint himself as a bit of a non-conformist. His beliefs in religious freedom and separation of church and state eventually got him ejected from puritan Massachusetts. Looking for somewhere to go, he and some followers in 1636 settled on land that was beyond any existing English land charters at the time; that settlement became Providence, Rhode Island. The new colony became a refuge from religious intolerance.
Today the 4 ½-acre national memorial site sits in downtown Providence, at the foot of College Hill, just down from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. There’s nothing left of the original settlement, and there’s not that much to see, to be honest. There is a visitor center, however, with the obligatory interpretive video, which is quite good. Unfortunately there were no guided ranger tours when we visited, and the park service employee on duty in the visitor center wasn’t too helpful. An informed ranger can really make a difference to a visitor’s experience of a historic site, especially when there’s not a lot on display that makes the historical connection clear.
Overall it is a pretty spot and quite tranquil, even though it is surrounded by busy city streets. And the spot is an important cultural resource, both for Rhode Island residents wanting to know more about how their state came into being and for others who want to find out more about America’s development of religious freedom.
As with all historic areas run by the National Park Service, the memorial is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.