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RI woman calls on state to dig up and return relative buried in mass grave

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Rhode Island woman whose great-great grandfather is buried in a 577-person mass grave is calling on Gov. Dan McKee to have the state dig up and identify her relative so he can be properly reburied with his family.

In the letter that she planned to hand deliver to McKee on Friday, Maria da Graca thanked the governor for his recent “kind words and compassion” shared about her great-great grandfather Antonio Coelho, a celebrated immigrant who came to Rhode Island in 1800s.

She also wrote “the only thing I want or will ever want” is for the remains of Coelho to be returned to his family so they can “give him a decent burial.” Her goal is to have him reburied with his wife in Providence.

Da Graca first contacted Target 12 in August when she was unable to find Coelho’s gravesite, spurring a months-long investigation to try and locate him. Coelho was the state’s first person from Cape Verde to buy a packet ship in 1891, and his story has been featured as an exhibit at the Providence Children’s Museum since it opened in 1997.

While celebrated in death, Coelho lived the end of his life in poverty and died in a state institution in 1941. As a result, he was buried in the State Institute Cemetery No. 3 on Pontiac Avenue in Cranston. As Target 12 reported last week, the state in 1975 dug up 577 individual gravesites — likely including Coelho — and reburied them in a mass grave nearly two miles down the road in State Institution Cemetery No. 2.

The relocation was done to make way for an industrial complex.

While burial records indicate Coelho was likely one of the people dug up and reburied in 1975, the state’s former photographer who documented the reburial said it would likely require a DNA test to differentiate between remains.

“Even if I can only have the box used to dump them into a mass grave, I would like these given to me,” da Graca said.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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