The following was written by Becky Pincince, a freelance writer, who was present when a group of archaeologists from Brown University did a survey of God’s Little Acre last month.
This past February, Brown University archaeology PhD candidates Alex Marko, Dan Plekhov, and Miriam Rothenberg spent a cold cloudy day surveying God’s Little Acre in the Common Burial Ground in Newport. The cemetery is the country’s largest and best-preserved colonial-era African and African-American cemetery, and it is a testament to the perseverance of their community.
Newport’s location meant that the cash crop farming that many people associate with slavery was not feasible, so instead enslaved Africans were trained in the trades required to keep the port city running. They often arrived as children under 13 years old and were raised as carpenters, stonemasons, chocolate grinders, glass blowers, ship riggers, sail seamstresses, and painters.
Their efforts are visible in Newport today, in places such as the Redwood Library and the Brick Marketplace. This education gave the African community the ability to organize. In 1780, the Free African Union Society was founded in order to provide financial support for local Africans, network with other unions in colonial America, and ensure a proper burial for every African who died in Newport.
God’s Little Acre is a part of their legacy today. Many headstones have been lost over time to weather and vandals, and today only about 200 are left. Included among them are two signed by Zingo Stevens, an enslaved artisan who worked in John Steven Junior’s shop in the 18th century. He is possibly the first African to sign his work in America.
In 2019, The Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission received a $50,000 grant from the National Trust of Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to protect the gravestones against our harsh New England weather, where the freeze-thaw cycle is a major threat to the layered slate headstones. The Brown archaeologists were recruited to make a digital map of the cemetery and record the information on the gravestones to improve and focus this conservation work, and to make the information available for public use.
They used GPS systems to record the location of each grave, then used a database that Rothenberg created to record photographs of the stones as well as the names and dates engraved on them. The end result will be a digital map of the cemetery that can be accessed both online and on mobile, so that visitors can use the information to locate individual graves.
The hope is that by preserving and increasing the visibility of these headstones, the African and African American contribution to Rhode Island and the United States as a whole will become more visible.
This Thursday March 5, the PhD candidates will present their results at a public lecture at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World. Event details can be found on Brown University’s calendar.
Additional information about God’s Little Acre can be found at www.colonialcemetery.com.