In 1857, he was the first African American elected to public office in Providence, Rhode Island. Thomas Howland began his career as a stevedore and grocer before joining public office.
According to the Rhodes Island Historical Society, he fled Providence for Liberia after experiencing racial discrimination during an interaction to obtain a passport. Howland’s iconic frame is a painting of him with a dubious stare, his eyebrow arched, and his lips smirking. He is elegantly placed in a curved chair back with a classical aspect.
A guy is seen flogging some horses in the artwork, which art lovers believe is a portrayal of Howland’s career as a stevedore at shipyards where cargo is transferred to various destinations. John Blanchard, a local stonecutter and artist, created the painting.
Historians are unsure when Howland’s frame was created, although it is assumed that it predates the time he moved to Liberia with his wife and daughter in 1857. On October 23, 1857, the New York Times picked up on reports from the local daily Providence Journal about Howland’s passport application.
He did so through a Providence notary, Martin, but the application was denied on the grounds that passports are not provided to anyone of African origin. The passport office claimed that such people are unfit to enter the United States.
In 1857, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in the Dred Scott case that held that enslaved individuals or free people of color are not eligible to become citizens of the United States. Howland’s application for a passport was declined on this basis. This rejection occurred when Howland was a US citizen with voting rights in his home region of Rhodes Island.
In 1857, he was also chosen as the first African American warden of Providence’s Third Ward. However, discrimination forced him to flee Providence with his wife and children for Liberia. Because of her qualifications and experience with Providence’s public schools, his wife was anticipated to pursue the teaching profession. Howland relocated to Liberia in 1857 and began producing sugar.
His ambition was to provide a comfortable life for his family and himself, free of racial prejudice and injustice.