NEWPORT, RI – These are the black people who lived in the city by the sea.
It was the enslaved Africans taken from what is now known as the Republic of Ghana, given new names that obliterated their identity, shipped off to a new country and put to work in homes, farms, shops and on the quays. They are buried with other slaves instead of their families – even children, like Pompey Lyndon, who died in slavery aged 28 months and nine days in 1765, and whose small headstone was carved by another slave.
These are the Africans who bought their freedom from landlords, bought their children into slavery and established themselves in the community. Duchess Quamino was a slave who secured her own freedom through her culinary skills and made the plum cakes adored by George Washington. After Quamino’s death in 1804, William Ellery Channing, one of the most prominent ministers of the Unitarian church, wrote his epitaph: “A free black of distinguished excellence: intelligent, industrious, affectionate, honest, and piety exemplary”.
Here are soldiers from the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, who fought the British during the Revolutionary War, and Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military pilots, who flew in World War II.
And, there are generations of black residents, whose lives and achievements have enriched their community. Like Harriet A. Rice, the first African-American woman to graduate from Wellesley College, and whose work as a doctor led her to be honored by France for caring for the wounded of World War I. She died in 1958 and her grave is nearby. view of Newport’s named and unnamed predecessors.
Since 1720, enslaved and free African Americans have been buried at God’s Little Acre, a location recognized as the oldest and largest African cemetery in the United States. It’s the perfect place to learn about black history, not just Newport and Rhode Island, but how the country was born.
“This should be the epicenter for anyone studying Colonial America and the African heritage of the people who lived here. It is a remarkable resource, just waiting to be discovered,” said Lewis Keen, President of the Newport Historic Cemetery Advisory Board.
The area is in the northern part of the Common Burying Ground along Farewell Street, a place where approximately 85% of colonial Newport is buried. Hundreds of black residents are buried in God’s Little Acre, which contains the largest collection of 18th century stones for people of African descent in the country.
“When you put together these stones and the stories we can tell from these stones, along with other records, it’s a rich source for anyone interested in studying the history of early African Americans and of the first Africans in this country,” Keen said.
The oldest is the simple gravestone of Hector Butcher, who died in 1720 aged 37, after arriving in Newport from Barbados with the unmarried woman who owned it.
While the design of many tombs is similar to others in the Common Burying Ground, there are some in God’s Little Acre where the faces of “souls” on the headstones have African characteristics. The names on the oldest graves also reveal the origins of the dead, who were often given African names based on the day of the week they were born.
Their story is set in slate and marble tombstones, carved by six generations of stonemasons and stone carvers from the Stevens family, as well as an African who was a slave to the family. It is believed that Pompe Stevens carved the tombstone of little Pompey Lyndon and his brother, Cuffe Gibbs, making these tombstones some of the first signed African American artwork in North America.
African Americans founded the first Free African Union Society in Newport in 1780, which provided proper burials and markers, and cared for widows and families, and some of its founders and early members are buried here.
A tour of the cemetery invites contemplation of the community that once lived here and the contributions they made. Historians have linked the names on the headstones to documents and records and have pieced together the life stories of those buried here, at colonialcemetery.com, sponsored by the 1696 Heritage Group founded by Theresa Guzmán Stokes and Keith Stokes, whose the ancestors are buried in God’s Little Acre.
“It’s the connection to the history of the city,” says Keen. “You come here and see the people, the people who built the houses, lived in the houses, the people who fought the wars, the people who made the city, what it was and, really, what she is today.