CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — A mass grave in Cranston with nearly 600 bodies is being cleaned up and landscaped so relatives and others can come to pay their respects.
In the fall, Target 12 helped Maria da Graca ended her more than decade-long search for her great-great grandfather’s displaced gravesite, uncovering that he was one of the 577 bodies that were dug up by the state and reburied in a mass grave in 1975 to make way for an industrial complex.
But because the mass burial site was overgrown in the fall, da Graca wasn’t able to find the marker denoting where her relative, Antonio Coelho, and the others were buried.
After the Pawtuxet River Authority spent roughly a month clearing trees and vegetation from the site in June, Target 12 met da Graca at State Institution Cemetery No. 2 to show her Coelho’s final resting place for the first time.
“Rest in peace, you and all the others,” da Graca said through tears as she laid the sunflowers she brought on the marker commemorating the mass grave. “My grandmother said these were his favorites.”
The Providence Children’s Museum has featured Coelho in an exhibit since it opened in 1997.
Coelho was the first person from Cape Verde to buy a packet ship in 1891, helping immigrants come to Providence for work and transporting mail, money and clothes to their families back home.
Da Graca said Coelho went even further, at one point rescuing thousands from a drought in Cape Verde.
But research shows that because of prejudice toward immigrants at the time, Coelho eventually lost his business and spent his final years at a state institution for the poor, sick and mentally ill.
“It’s just sad that this would happen to anybody — not just him, but anybody,” da Graca said.
Pegee Malcolm, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries, said she’s happy the Pawtuxet River Authority is working on the area, but says there’s more to do.
“Those people need and deserve the respect everyone else gets,” she said. “I’m looking forward to when it will be mowed and cleaned and people can come visit.”
State Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, R-Warwick, and House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, D-Cranston, want to mark the mass grave and other state institution cemeteries in more respectful ways.
Larry Berman, a spokesperson for the House, said Shekarchi “is very supportive of having kiosks” that would list the names of those buried there.
“These people deserve a decent burial,” Berman said.
Berman told Target 12 the House has $1 million it can spend in legislative grants, and Berman said Shekarchi is looking at using some of that funding for kiosks.
Target 12 interviewed a former state photographer in the fall, Chester Browning, who keeps records and photos of the state institution cemeteries, and he the names of 560 of the people buried in the mass grave, including Coelho.
Browning was there on that day in 1975 and photographed the bodies being dug up. He said the remains of 20 to 40 bodies were placed in trash bags and then combined in cement coffers before being transported and reburied at State Institution Cemetery No. 2.
“I don’t believe it ever should have happened,” Malcolm said. “The laws have changed, and the way people feel about the dead, especially people who died as paupers.”
But even if the kiosk gets built and the mass burial site is landscaped with grass replacing trees and weeds, da Graca said her work won’t be done.
“I’m grateful, but my goal is still to get him out of this ditch,” da Graca said. “I have faith in God, and that’s all I can do. I pray, and I work at this every day.”