Dora Johnson Manton

Dora Johnson Manton

1863 — 1937

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Chapter on the Manton Family in “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold”

Outdoor exhibit panel from the 2020 special exhibition, The Little Compton Women’s History Project.

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

There is no known image of Dora Manton, but her neighbor took and labeled this c. 1901 photograph of her children “Henry Manton’s Tribe.” Dora was born in New Bedford, part Native American, part African American. In 1884 she married Henry Manton, who arrived in Little Compton on the Underground Railroad around 1860 as a ten-year-old boy. In 1892 the Mantons purchased a 30-acre farm on Mullin Hill Road. Their white neighbors held a series of mortgages for them. They were one of three Black families in Pottersville around 1900. The nearby school was integrated. Dora had 12 children and worked as a midwife. Henry was a stone mason. They had a car and owned the first phone in Pottersville. Dora babysat for Abe Quick who remembered her as a “great lady” in his interview in Jonnycakes & Cream. He recalls Dora making “tonics” that “cured everything” on her big cast iron stove. The herbs and “sticks” that Abe remembers were likely traditional medicines passed down from Dora’s ancestors. Throughout the 20th century Dora and her descendants were often the only people of color in Little Compton.

Chapter on the Manton Family in “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold”

There were the Nickersons and the Mantons. Those were the only Negroes in town. They came down from slave days….The Mantons lived near Pottersville village between Over left t’Eastward and the Psalming Country. There’s nothing of their house but the ruined foundation.

David Patten, Adventures in a Remembered World [1]

Though Henry Manton was born in North Carolina and appears to have arrived in Little Compton prior to 1870 through the Underground Railroad, and Pardon Nicholson’s father immigrated from Cape Verde around 1830, David Patten is not wrong in saying the families came down from slave days. If we focus on the women in the family, there are local ties leading back to the time of slavery in the North. Pardon’s mother, Catherine Cook, descends from generations of locally enslaved people. Henry’s wife, Dora Isabel Johnson, was a New Bedford woman of color. Her father, William H. Johnson’s race was “I” for Indian on his death record. He was the son of Caleb Johnson and Mercy Terry Johnson of Dartmouth. He was also a Civil War veteran.[2]

Many Little Compton residents living today remember Henry Manton’s descendants as the only African American people in Little Compton. His three grandsons Henry, Raymond and Billy lived on their family’s land on Mullin Hill Road off and on throughout the second half of the twentieth century. They also maintained their family ties in New Bedford and attended church and school there.

What most residents do not know is that for a brief moment in history the Mantons were an “anchor” family who helped two other African American families set down roots in Little Compton. For a decade or so at the beginning of the twentieth century Pottersville was a small multi-racial neighborhood with three African American families and twenty-seven black residents.

Henry Manton purchased his 30-acre Pottersville farm in 1892 for $500 with a one-year mortgage that he paid in full.[3] On more than one occasion Henry and Dora asked neighbors to hold small mortgages on the property, but the land remained in the family even after Henry’s death in 1935.[4] Henry and Dora raised ten children on their farm. Most, but not all, of them left the area when they were adults.

Sometime before 1900, the Mantons’ residency in Pottersville drew Dora’s younger brother Joseph Johnson and his wife Nellie to come to Little Compton to live near them and raise their own large family. The Johnson’s rented a property for a while, but in 1908 the home immediately to the west of the Mantons was foreclosed upon and came up for public auction. The Johnsons were the high bidders at $830. Joseph and Nellie mortgaged a small portion of the purchase price, just $150, not with neighbors like Henry and Dora had done, but with a more professional lending company in Fall River, named Lincoln and Hood.[5] By 1919 the Johnsons were behind on their payments, and Lincoln and Hood foreclosed upon them.[6] The Johnsons left Little Compton, and the commu­nity has forgot­ten the twenty years they lived there.[7]

The third African American family to settle in Pottersville around 1910 was the Fosters, Benjamin, Julia and their four children. The Fosters came from Connecticut, where Benjamin had worked in a brass factory, and rented a place in the Pottersville area. Benjamin did odd jobs to make a living. The Fosters did not stay very long. By 1920 they were back in Connecticut with Benjamin working in a brass mill again. Their son Ebenezer married the Manton’s daughter Ida. Ebenezer and Ida went with them to Connecticut.

Only the Mantons stayed in Pottersville. They were the only black family in Little Compton in 1920, and they were well-remembered by their neighbors. Dora took care of Abe Quick, born in 1915, while his mother was at work. Abe recalled his time with the Manton family in Jonnycakes and Cream.

There was only one telephone in the neighborhood. There was a colored family lived across the street, the Mantons. He was a mason and a plasterer and quite successful. He did all the work at the Point, Warren’s Point, Sakonnet Point; built walls, stone walls you know things like that, and he had an automobile and he had a telephone. He was quite a celebrity in the neighborhood.

I used to spend a lot of time over there. Mrs. Manton, she was a midwife. She was half Gay Head Indian and Half African-American. He was the son of a slave, Henry Manton was, and they moved up here and bought this place in the late 1800s, and, as I say, he was very successful. And they had a large family; they had eleven children.

She was a great lady! She used to steep up all kinds of herbs. They had a big room in the back with an iron stove and she’d have these big kettles with all these sticks in there, and she was stirring ‘em up, you know, and she’d make the darndest stuff. She’d bring it over in the spring for tonics. You couldn’t stand the taste of it. She’d make you take a tablespoon of the darn stuff. Cured everything! Oh, yuh, she was quite a lady. I’ll tell you.

They used to baby-sit me. My mother used to be working at Westport. She was companion for a family down there…. So I used to spend a lot of time over there. They were characters, those boys. They all played musical instruments…they had cars and I used to go to Adamsville with them and all over the place. It was a great time.[8]

As successful as Henry may have been, the family lived a very modest existence. Their property was almost always mortgaged, and Henry, Dora and their son Walter all passed away at the Howard State Hospital in Cranston. The state-run facility was a complex that included prisons, the state mental hospital, the poor house and a medical facility for the poor. Dora had Walter committed to the mental hospital in 1926.[9] Henry passed away in the medical facility in 1935, and Dora did the same in 1937.[10] Walter and Henry were buried in the institution’s cemetery with only identification numbers carved into their gravestones. The family had Dora buried in the Taber Cemetery in Acushnet, Massachusetts.

In 1940 Henry and Dora’s son Leroy, a cobbler, was the only person of color living in Little Compton.[11] His sister Lillian, the Manton’s youngest child, married, and eventually divorced, a man named Raymond Woods from Connecticut. Lillian and Raymond lived on the Manton farm in the 1930s.[12] Lillian and her children were the next generation of Mantons to be remembered as the town’s only black people.

Neighbor Nate Wilbur remembered playing with the boys, Raymond, Henry and Billy. He was especially impressed one day with their determination to bring an old couch Nate’s dad was giving away up Mullin Hill to their home. After some deliberation, the boys ran home and got some roller skates. They put one skate under each leg of the couch and rolled it up the hill. The Manton’s old house eventually fell into disrepair and the Manton-Woods moved into a trailer on the property. Lillian played piano, and her children were also musical. Neighbors remember enjoying the music that emanated from their home.129[13]

Barry Peckham had the opportunity to work with all three of Lillian’s sons when he was a young man and remembers the influence they had on him as the first people of color he had the opportunity to know. He wrote:

Both Billy and his older brother Henry Woods worked for Raymond Peckham from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. Being the oldest of Raymond’s grandkids, I may remember Billy best and his departure from the family farm felt to me like the loss of a big brother.

Until the late ‘50s I was merely a spectator on the farm, watching the men perform their many chores and catching stories as they drifted by. I learned that Henry and Billy were half-brothers with the same mother, who moved her family back and forth between Little Compton and New Bedford. The shifting homesteads kept Billy from a formal education. My dad said it was the mother’s way of protecting her kids from the thing that is now called racism. Billy consequently couldn’t read much, and it surprised me to see him struggle with writing his real last name in the dirt one day, for my benefit. I called him Billy Woods until I was about ten, and he was about twenty.

As a veteran farmhand in his early twenties, Billy was a talkative story-teller, singer, actor, entertainer, body-builder, biker, hot-rodder and chronic competitor. My father Al Peckham may have served as Billy’s mentor at that time, and the two would often race each other through tasks like hoeing squash or loading hay, but Billy’s role models were Elvis Presley and Cassius Clay. In the middle of a cabbage field, with his mild-mannered brother Henry nearby, Billy would strike a body-builder’s pose and yell out, “I am the greatest! And I’m pretty too!”

By age ten I had a social security number and worked alongside Billy as often as possible. It was easy to spend time with him during summer vacation but he did not work on Saturdays, which was a regular workday for Peckhams and other hired hands. My dad told me that the brothers were Seventh Day Adventists and their Sabbath was Saturday.

In hay season, the hardest bales to load were the last few which needed to be hurled to the top of the pile. Billy loved to do this as a show of strength. He would toss his bales like a dodge ball, trying to hit the packer on top of the load. Sometimes they would sail over the load and land back on the ground. If I kidded him about the extra work, he often replied with something like, “You are gonna look pretty funny with a hay bale shoved down your throat!” Over the years, dozens of farm objects were used in the “shoved down your throat” threat.

One afternoon in the early 1960s I spied a different mood on Billy’s face as he crossed Peckham Road. He looked angry but also hurt. His mom had passed away that day, the result of a recent car accident. I was told by my folks that a rib had punctured her lung and that she didn’t go to a hospital with her injury, fearing the standard dose of discrimination. I can’t guarantee that I was told the whole story, considering my age at the time, but it reminded me that my “big brother’s” life was a minefield of racial considerations. I tried once to invite Billy into my folks’ house and he declined the invitation, standing just outside the front door. My mom explained that he may have felt “uncomfortable” entering a white person’s home. These concepts were a wake-up call for a white kid in the early 1960s.

Raymond put forth a persona almost completely opposite to his rambunctious kid brother [Billy], but they each had fashioned characters based upon the same world view. Billy, at least in his Little Compton youth, was a rebel without a cause, pushing back against everything in any way possible. Raymond was more of a Shakespearean actor, moving through town like a closely watched player on stage and spouting clever, wordy phrases thick with subliminal meaning. Like an actor, Raymond took pains to obscure his authentic self, the better to portray his concocted character. His aim, as I saw it, was to favorably impress everyone he met, and he worked hard at that, harder than most of us.

With Compton Construction Company, Raymond did masonry work, painting and shingling, along with regular construction chores. Every so often we would find ourselves at the same jobsite; these made up most of my best days with Dick Rogers’ company. Like his young brother Bill, Raymond’s urge was to entertain, engage, impress and inform. He also obfuscated with the best. Straight answers were hard to get. Raymond refused to give away any personal information, and would construct his refusals in creative ways until insistent questions put him on defense.

The primary purpose in Raymond’s elaborate posturing, it seemed clear to me, was passed down from his mother: like brother Bill, Raymond had acute racism radar. His method was to detect it and then to dance with it, like a boxer in the ring. It wasn’t a chip-on-the-shoulder thing. I doubt anyone has ever accused Raymond Woods of that.

One fine summer day we found ourselves prepping and shingling a pyramid-shaped garage roof. The summer people who owned the property took a demeaning tone with us that pushed Raymond’s button. I watched as he slipped seamlessly into an exaggerated “Uncle Tom” mode, and then heard the owner speak to him like she would a servant in the Old South. We were warned not to let a single nail linger on the lawn below, and were ordered to take special care of the family dog, lest it be struck with falling debris. Raymond’s revenge looked like this: hours spent combing the lawn for nails and hours spent cradling the family dog. It took us a week to finish this small roof.

Foreman Eddie Sousa was no fool for Raymond’s antics. He sympathized with and supported Raymond’s employ­ment whenever possible, and he also scolded Raymond a lot. On one fine fall day I watched Eddie create a fake emergency job for Raymond so that he would have to leave a jobsite where “coloreds” were suddenly unwelcome. Eddie could barely hide his disgust.

K. Barry Peckham, 2015[14]

For many Little Compton residents in the 1950s-1970s, most or all of what they knew of African Americans they learned from the Manton-Woods. That education only hinted at the prejudice encountered by people of color in the world beyond almost exclusively white Little Compton. By this time, any understanding of northern slavery and the lives of people once enslaved in Little Compton were very distant and very cloudy memories.

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] David Patten, Adventures in a Remembered World, (Providence: Providence Journal, c. 1950), p. 37.

[2] William H. Johnson’s Death Record, New Bedford, MA, October 18, 1907. Accessed via Ancestry.com.

[3] William Manton’s Purchase, Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 16, pp. 245-246.

[4] Manton Mortgage Records, Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 16, pp. 246, 247, 326 & 491; Book 18, p. 65; Book 19, pp. 132, 150, 359 & 360; Book 24, p. 408; Book 27, pp. 285-286. Probate Records for Henry Manton, Little Compton Probate Records, Book 17, p. 185.

[5] Joseph Johnson’s Purchase, Little Compton Land Evidence Records, Book 20, p. 348.

[6] Foreclosure, Ibid., Book 22, p. 375.

[7] 1910 & 1920 Federal Censuses, Little Compton, Rhode Island & 1920 Federal Census Connecticut.

[8] Lucy A. O’Connor, Compiler & Editor, Jonnycakes and Cream, Oral Histories of Little Compton, R.I., (Newport: America House Design & Communications, 1993), p. 153.

[9] Walter Manton Commitment, Little Compton Probate Records, Book 16, p. 61.

[10] Death Record, Henry Manton, Little Compton Birth, Marriages & Deaths, Book 13, p. 36. Death Record, Dora Manton, Ibid., p. 56.

[11] 1940 Federal Census, Little Compton, Rhode Island.

[12] 1930 Federal Census and 1935 State Census for Little Compton, Rhode Island.

[13] Oral History Interview with Irene Wilbur (Mrs. Nate Wilbur), April 2016, Little Compton Historical Society Archives.

[14] Peckham.

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