Hidden History: Why the smallest state has the biggest African burial ground in the country

Black History Month

NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — In the year 1696, business was about to boom in Rhode Island. But it wasn’t a golden age for everyone.

In fact, that was the year the first slave ship, the “Sea Flower,” arrived on the East Coast, bringing with it people — along with their customs, religion, and food — who would go on to be enslaved.

While some would eventually gain their freedom, many ended up in the same place — God’s Little Acre Cemetery in Newport, the biggest African burial ground in the United States.

So how did the smallest state end up with the biggest African burial ground? One person who knows the answer is local historian Keith Stokes.

Stokes is a resident of Newport and the vice president of 1696 Heritage Group, a historical research organization, who has been researching this burial ground for decades.

“This burial ground represents the history of not only the trans-Atlantic trade but more importantly, it offers the history of the African people,” Stokes said. “There are African men, women and children and families buried here.”

And it’s not just because he’s interested. It’s his own, deeply personal story. Going back nine generations, most of his family was laid to rest in the same place.

His ancestors include slaves, free men, college graduates in a time where education wasn’t so easy to obtain, and even a Tuskegee airman, as well as one of the founders of one of the earliest African churches in Rhode Island.

“My fourth-great grandfather, his name was October,” Stokes said. “He was part of a grand experiment in 1795 at the age of 8 where the Quaker Barkley family decided they wanted to end their participation in the slave trade, and they sent my young ancestor and a group of other Africans to Philadelphia, freed them and set them up with a reparations plan.”

Stokes’ ancestors are about a dozen of 300 existing markings at the cemetery. He says the property dates back to 1705 and with his help, God’s Little Acre will be brought into 2020.

Along with the help of the city’s Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission and Brown University,
work is now underway on a project to create a high-resolution digital map of the historic site, which could serve as the foundation for future site management and exploration for a new generation.

“Digitizing God’s Little Acre is important in building databases to be used by historians, genealogists, tourists, and site managers. Once a high-resolution map is created, it will be the basis for other platforms and be a conduit for people to interact with the site, its stones, and its history. We hope that anyone with a cell phone will be guided to the desired stone; links to historical information can educate and inform visitors. Digitizing the site will provide access to everyone interested and help promote its importance.”

Lew Keen, Newport Historic Cemetery Advisory Committee Chairman

According to Brown, the last time any data was collected on the burial site was 1903.

“We wanted to help bring it a little bit more into the public eye, and make it more accessible for both researchers and the public so that aspect of Rhode Island history isn’t glossed over as much as it is,” said Miriam Rothenberg, a Ph.D. candidate at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University.

“It really helps bring ownership among local descendant communities and it also demonstrates some of the less savory pieces of Rhode Island history that are important to remember,” she added.

Once complete, visitors will be able to access information from the digital map through a smartphone or their computer, which researchers hope will provide the public with a better understanding and deeper appreciation.

“What we are going to do to supplement that is over the next month, month and a half, is collect data on the gravestones,” Rothenberg explained. “First, we will fly a drone up there and fly that above to get very high-resolution photographs of the whole burial ground.”

The university will also use GPS devices specifically for archaeological research.

But to first get to the future, you have to look to the past. Many came to rest here because they were brought here.

Stokes says in the 17th century, Africans made up nearly 20% percent of Newport’s population with one in three families owning at least one slave. And according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, for nearly 50 years, Rhode Island brought in more slaves than any other colony.

Courtesy: Theresa Guzmán Stokes and Keith W. Stokes

“If you went to what is today called South County, which would have been Washington County or Narragansett County, you also had a large number of enslaved African-American people working in the plantations and farms working in places like North Kingstown and Narragansett and Charlestown,” Stokes said.

Many slaves worked to produce the state’s number-one export at the time: rum.

“Providence and Newport and Bristol, they are producing about 80% of the guinea rum in the world market,” Stokes added.

Decades later, Rhode Island also became a refuge for free Africans. Religious freedom was dominant in the state, especially in the capital city of Providence.

“Newport, in 1780, forms the first African-American Benevolent Society in America and by the early 19th century, these benevolent societies turn into America’s first black churches,” Stokes said. “The first black church, that building still stands and that congregation still serves. Providence at Meeting Street is the first public African-American school in America and the building still stands.”

So many Africans, according to Stokes, ended up staying put, “where you could worship freely, you could work, you can build and safely support a family.”

“For the most part, free Africans would congregate and create their own African settlements,” he continued. “Newport was widely known as a hospitable place for free Africans, College Hill in Providence was a recognized place for free Africans.”

That led to a big African population in Rhode Island which would ultimately pass away and be buried in Newport.

“Our hope is that anyone can go through this data themselves and do their own research and also explore and see who is buried there and maybe a little bit about what their life was like,” Rothenberg said.

“What we’re most excited about is we have a large number of primary and secondary documents that tell us the story of who these people were, and most importantly, their contributions not as chattel property, but their contributions as men, women and children. Real people.”

Keith Stokes, 1696 Heritage Group

The digital mapping is expected to be completed by next summer.

Buried Stories

The aim of the digital mapping is to bring to the next generation the stories of those buried in the cemetery. While all Africans played a part in Rhode Island life and society, here’s a look at some of the more well-known residents:

Duchess Quamino (1753-1804) was known in her time as “the pastry queen of Rhode Island” and bought her own freedom through baking.

Quamino, possibly from Ghana or Senegal, was a cook in the Newport household of William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian preacher. Stokes said she was famous for “her baking skills and her frosted plum cake was the finest of its time.”

While running a catering business from the Channing home, she served her cakes to George Washington on two occasions.

Eventually, Quamino opened a takeout bakery in a space that is now a parking lot on Mary Street in Newport. With the money she earned, Quamino was able to purchase her freedom, as well as her children’s freedom.

Her husband was also the first African-American to attend Princeton University.

The gravestone of Duchess Quamino at God’s Little Acre in the Common Burying Ground in Newport (Theresa Guzmán Stokes and Keith W. Stokes)

Pompe Stevens was an African craftsman. At least two headstones documented in God’s Little Acre — Cuffe Gibbs (1728-1768) and Pompey Lyndon (1763-1765) — are attributed to Stevens. His work is known to be among the first signed African artwork in the United States.

Peter Quire (1806-1899) was a free African-American abolitionist, missionary, and cobbler who founded St. John the Evangelist Church in Newport (1865). The congregation originally met in his home until building a church on Poplar Street.

Elleanor Eldrige was an African American and Native American entrepreneur and writer from Rhode Island. She is best known for the Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge, which was co-authored with Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall.

During a lifetime, Elridge ran several successful businesses and had property, accumulating an estate worth $4,800. Eventually, she was able to buy a house in Warwick and another in Providence — a notable achievement for any woman at the time but especially one of color.

Her accumulation of property was almost unheard of for an African man, let alone a woman in that era.

Elridge was also known for her stance on marriage. She is said to have considered marriage an unnecessary distraction and reportedly stated, “While my young mistress courted and married, I knit five pairs of stockings.”

The Rhode Island Historical Society owns a copy of her original memoir.

Eldridge was born free in Rhode Island because her father fought in the American Revolution.

Pompey Brenton was elected as one of Newport’s first African governors.

Courtesy: The Tombstone of Pompey Brenton, Newport, Rhode Island, 1772. Architectural Digest

As we celebrate Black History Month, be sure to join us for our Hidden History special Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on Fox Providence for more stories of adversity and bravery from all over the country.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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