Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles on historical and noteworthy graveyards in Rhode Island.
By KELLY SULLIVAN
Some stories are protected behind centuries-old stone walls. Others, behind iron gates. They may lie shrouded deep within the woods or out in the open, surrounded by fields and farmlands. Many stories inform us of their author, deeply carved into granite or marble. Some offer us nothing more than a fieldstone. And many have no marker of any kind to let us know that the story of a life is rooted in the very ground where we stand. Our cemeteries are often looked upon as merely small expanses of land in which the dead are laid to quiet rest. But their silence speaks a million words, telling stories that achieve a sense of immortality. In this series, we will look at several Rhode Island cemeteries which have amazing stories to tell.
On Farewell Street in Newport stands one of the oldest and largest slave cemeteries in America. Lying within the boundaries of the Common Burying Ground, “God’s Little Acre” is a colonial African burial ground containing nearly 300 graves. Most of the markers are now crude and difficult to read as time has chipped away stone and worn down etchings.
Some of the graves date back to the late 1600’s when the first slave ships began to arrive in Newport. The seaport town produced the finest rum around and began transporting barrels of it to West Africa in exchange for slaves. Until emancipation, over 100,000 slaves were brought to Rhode Island, with Newport being one of the leading slave ports in America. Nearly 1,000 sea voyages were for the purpose of bringing slaves back to Rhode Island.
The graves at “God’s Little Acre” are a history lesson both in the subject of slavery as well as African culture. Many slaves held by Newport residents were allowed to maintain their African first names, though they followed the custom of taking on the surname of their master. Therefore it is common in this burial ground to see such names as “Quash”, “Quarco” and Cuff”. It was a West African tradition for parents to name their sons after the day of the week on which they were born. Other names such as “Cudgo”, which means “Monday” and Quamino”, which means Saturday, were also common names of Newport slaves. Others took on names which declared where they came from or where they were brought to, such as “Cape Coast James” and “Newport”.
Aside from names and dates of birth and death, many of the stones in the cemetery inform us of who the deceased was a “servant” of. Some of the servants/slaves were mere children when they died.
The craftsmanship of the markers in this particular burial ground gives us a glimpse into the different ways slaves were viewed not only in other parts of the country but in other parts of the state. Most of the stones bear ornate carvings with images of African-American likenesses and show that effort was put into memorializing the lives of the interred. In other parts of Rhode Island, slave graves were usually marked with little more than a field stone. This may serve to show that the slaves in Newport, who were trained in various types of craftsmanship such as silversmithing, carpentry and carving, were more highly regarded than those who worked on the farms of surrounding towns.
Many Newport slaves went on to establish themselves successfully after gaining their freedom. Violet Quamino, a slave of William Channing, went on to become an esteemed local pastry chef. Zingo Stevens, a slave of well-known stone cutter John Stevens Jr., became highly talented in his craft and created some of the markers in the cemetery. Some of Newport’s most impressive structures, such as Touro Synagogue were built by former slaves.
Regardless of what smudges we may have upon our historical records, whether it be slavery or other acts of inhumane behavior, the past can never be changed. But it should never be forgotten either. “God’s Little Acre” is testimony to that.