Above a busy thoroughfare in Newport’s North End, there’s a quiet, shady hill. Few of the dog walkers and fewer of the hundreds of motorists that pass each day pay much attention to it. This spot is not neglected or forgotten; in fact it’s well marked and dutifully tended. But even some lifelong Newporters might not know that this hill features one of the country’s most significant monuments to Black History. Historians believe it’s the earliest work of art signed by an African American.
And it’s a tombstone.
The final resting place of Cuffe Gibbs is not hard to find at the top of God’s Little Acre, the section of the Common Burying Ground filled with graves of Newport’s free and enslaved 18th century Black population. The stone itself is as weathered as you might expect, but the stunning epitaph is still perfectly readable:
This Stone was
cut by Pompe
Stevens in Memo
ry of his brother
Cuffe Gibbs, who
died Decr. 27th. 1768,
Aged 40 Years.
I am one of the dog walkers who passed this grave many times before learning the story of the man buried there and his brother. Researchers have been able to piece together fragments of their lives and concluded that Pompe Stevens was a skilled artisan working in the engraving shop of his owner, William Stevens. Pompe Stevens’ signature also appears on a nearby stone. He buried his own son next to his brother.
Look closely at the epitaphs here and you’ll notice some telltale themes. Exact ages are guessed at (Mintus Brenton died “aged about 52 years”). The name of the deceased is almost always followed by the owner’s. Even in death the bond of servitude is literally etched in stone. The Cuffe Gibbs marker is the only one where an enslaved man is remembered by a relative, with no mention of master. His brother didn’t leave any doubt; he was “Aged 40 years.”
As we near the end of Black History Month, I’m trying to share the story of these men as much as possible. Because of this remarkable epitaph, we know that they lived and died here in Newport. But we also know something far more significant.
Pompe Stevens was a slave. In the Stevens workshop on Thames Street, he honed a precise, artistic skill that makes his work impossible to discern from his master’s. Perhaps it’s exactly because of that that one day late in 1768, he was determined to sign his work on his brother’s memorial. And today you can walk to that stone and run your finger across the carefully etched letters. Compressing centuries into an instant, the indelible carving says: we were here. We made this. We matter.
[All due credit to Caitlin Galante-DeAngelis Hopkins for many of the details in this piece. Much more can be found in her article here. Also see the cover story on God’s Little Acre in the Fall 2020 issue of Preservation magazine.]