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9 Things That Make Rhode Island a Great Cultural State

Rhode Island ranks 43rd in population among the 50 states, with 1,097,379 people, according to the 2020 U.S. census. There are about 1,061 people per square mile (410 per square kilometer). Rhode Island is the second-most-densely populated state (New Jersey is the first).

Most Rhode Islanders -about 90 percent- live in or near cities. The Providence metropolitan area includes six counties in two states—all of Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. Its population exceeds that of the state of Rhode Island by approximately 65 percent.

1. An Ethnic Mix

Rhode Island has been called the most ethnically diverse state in the nation. More than 70 percent of the population is White; there are many citizens of Irish, Italian, English, French, and Portuguese descent. There are more than 180,000 Hispanic people. As of 2020, about 62,000 Rhode Islanders were African American, and 39,000 Asian-American.

There are about 23,000 Native Americans living in Rhode Island today. Of these, more than 2,500 are Narragansett. The Narragansett tribal headquarters is Longhouse in Charlestown.

2. Welcome to All

During the colonial period, most Rhode Islanders were English Protestants. They were attracted to the colony because of the unusual degree of religious freedom and tolerance there. During the 1820s, large numbers of Irish Catholics came to Rhode Island. Fleeing hard times in Ireland, they took jobs in the booming textile mills and metals factories. Today, numerous descendants of these Irish immigrants remain in the state.

During the Civil War, many French Canadians came to work in the factories and mills. So did Swedes and Germans. Seamen from Portugal and Portugal's Cape Verde Islands, off the West African coast, found employment on the whaling ships that operated off the coast of Rhode Island. Historically, many Rhode Islanders of Portuguese descent lived in Providence's Fox Point community.

Thousands of southern and eastern Europeans came to Rhode Island beginning in the 1890s. These included Poles, Lithuanians, Armenians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Syrians, Lebanese, Germans, Russians, and an especially large number of Italians. The Italian heritage is preserved in Providence's Little Italy on Federal Hill; it has many Italian restaurants, bakeries, and espresso shops.

After 1950, many African Americans, Portuguese islanders, Caribbean islanders, and Southeast Asian refugees began to make Rhode Island their home.

3. Founded on Religious Freedom

Holy Ghost Church Providence RI

Holy Ghost Church Providence RI

From its very beginnings as a colony, Rhode Island has enjoyed religious freedom. A charter given by King Charles II of England in 1663 assured religious tolerance. And founder Roger Williams welcomed newcomers of all religions. Quakers, Jews, Puritans, Congregationalists, Anglicans, Catholics, and many others made their home in Rhode Island during the 1600s. This exceptional degree of religious tolerance eventually became a basic principle on which the United States was founded.

Today, Rhode Island is one of the most Roman Catholic states in the country due to the high number of Roman Catholic immigrants in the 19th century. There are also substantial numbers of mainline Protestants and some Jews.

4. Educating a Diverse Culture

Children in Rhode Island are required to attend school from age 6 through 18. The first schools in Rhode Island were private, run by religious groups. However, in 1640, Robert Lenthal founded one of the first public schools in the American colonies in Newport.

During the early 1800s, Rhode Island began to impose taxes to support free public schools. In 1845, Henry Barnard created the State Board of Education and became Rhode Island's first commissioner of education. Catholics created a private-school system that educated many Rhode Island schoolchildren as well. Today, a 17-member Board of Education directs Rhode Island's public school system.

Higher education is a vital part of Rhode Island, thanks to its 12 colleges and universities. Brown University in Providence is one of the oldest colleges in the United States. Baptists founded it in 1764. Also in Providence is the Rhode Island School of Design, one of America's leading art schools. Johnson & Wales University in Providence is nationally known for its hotel- and restaurant-management programs.

The state's only law school is at Roger Williams University in Bristol. Other private schools include Providence College, Salve Regina University, Bryant University, and the New England Institute of Technology. Public higher education includes the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island. Advanced military strategy is taught at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport.

5. Exciting Performing Arts

Rhode Islanders enjoy a rich array of musical performances. The Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra sponsors Rhode Island Philharmonic Youth Orchestras for talented young people. Soloists from around the world perform with the Rhode Island Civic Chorale & Orchestra and Opera Providence.

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During the school year, Brown University, Rhode Island College, the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island School of Design, and Salve Regina University offer orchestral, choral, and solo concerts.

Summer in Newport is paradise for music lovers. People come from all over the world to enjoy the Newport Music Festival, Newport Folk Festival, and Newport Jazz Festival.

Throughout the year, fans of classical, modern, and folk dance can attend performances by the State Ballet of Rhode Island, Festival Ballet Providence, and many other dance companies.

Community and professional theaters thrive in Rhode Island. The Players at Barker Playhouse in Providence is the oldest community theater in the country. Providence is also home to the Providence Performing Arts Center. The Trinity Repertory Company, a professional theatrical group, has earned many honors.

One of Rhode Island's best-loved entertainers was George M. Cohan. Born in Providence, Cohan wrote many famous patriotic songs for Broadway shows, including "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag."

6. Many Libraries and Museums

There are about 50 public libraries, 18 university and college libraries, and a number of special libraries in Rhode Island. The oldest operating library in the state is the Redwood Library & Athenaeum in Newport; it was established in 1747. Brown University's John Hay Library has one of the world's most complete collections of writings by and about Abraham Lincoln.

Rhode Island has been home to many writers, including novelist and short-story writer H.P. Lovecraft. Several Rhode Island writers have won the Pulitzer Prize. Among them are novelist Edwin O'Connor for The Edge of Sadness, poet Leonard Bacon, Jhumpa Lahiri for Interpreter of Maladies, and novelist Oliver La Farge for Laughing Boy.

The Rhode Island School of Design Museum is in Providence. The Museum of Natural History and Planetarium is located in Providence's Roger Williams Park. It has science displays, a large collection of Native American objects, and a planetarium.

Noteworthy historic buildings are located throughout the state. They include the Breakers and Marble House mansions and Touro Synagogue in Newport, and the John Brown House Museum and the First Baptist Meeting House in Providence.

7. The “First” in Sports

Rhode Islanders have a long tradition of being "first" in a number of sporting and recreational events. In 1866, the country's first public roller-skating rink opened in Newport. In 1896, the first auto races in the United States were held in Cranston. Tennis is big in Rhode Island.

The first national lawn-tennis championship was held at the Newport Casino in 1881. Today, Newport is the home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the world's largest tennis museum. Newport also hosts many tennis championships.

Rhode Island baseball fans enjoy watching the Pawtucket Red Sox, or PawSox, at McCoy Stadium. This minor-league baseball team is the Boston Red Sox's Class AAA International League affiliate.

The National Football League's New England Patriots play their home games just half an hour from Providence, in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

At the Dunkin' Donuts Center Providence, basketball fans can see the Providence College Friars and various collegiate tournaments. Other sporting and special events are also held at the center.

8. Sailing Capital of the World

Newport is the site of many yacht races and regattas; it has been called the sailing capital of the world. It hosted the America's Cup race, the most famous of all international sailing competitions, from 1930 to 1983. The United States won the race for 132 years in a row, from 1851 to 1983.

Today, Newport hosts the Newport Bermuda Race, the Classic Yacht Regatta, and many other well-known races.

9. Outdoor Recreation

Rhode Island has an extensive waterfront. Boating, fishing, swimming, surfing, skin diving, and other activities are popular. The state has 41 public saltwater beaches and 22 freshwater beaches. Both saltwater and freshwater fishing are popular.

There are many fishing tournaments off the state's shores. Some of Rhode Island's state parks are historic sites, wildlife refuges, or both. These include Block Island National Wildlife Refuge and Burlingame State Park.

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