NEWPORT, R.I. — These are the Black people who lived in the City by the Sea.
They are the enslaved Africans taken from what’s now known as the Republic of Ghana, given new names that wiped out their identities, shipped to a new country and put to work in homes, farms, shops, and at the docks. They are laid to rest with fellow slaves instead of their families — even children, such as Pompey Lyndon, who died in slavery at 28 months and nine days old in 1765, and whose small headstone was carved by another enslaved man.
They are the Africans who purchased their freedom from owners, bought their children from 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 foremost ministers in the Unitarian church, wrote her epitaph: “A free black of distinguished excellence: Intelligent, Industrious, Affectionate, Honest, and of Exemplary Piety.”
There are soldiers here of 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 accomplishments enriched their community. Like Harriet A. Rice, the first African-American woman to graduate from Wellesley College, and whose work as a physician led her to be honored by France for treating the wounded in World War I. She died in 1958, and her grave is within view of the named and the nameless predecessors of Newport.
Since 1720, the enslaved and free African-Americans have been interred at God’s Little Acre, a place that’s recognized as the earliest and largest African burial ground in the United States. This is the place to learn about Black history, not only of Newport and Rhode Island, but of the birth of the country.
“This should be the epicenter of anybody studying colonial America and the African heritage of people who lived here. It’s a remarkable resource, just waiting to be discovered,” said Lewis Keen, chair of the Newport Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission.
The area is in the northern section of the Common Burying Ground, along Farewell Street, a place where about 85 percent 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 heritage in the country.
“When you put together these stones and the stories that we can tell from those stones, with other documents, it’s a rich source for anyone interested in studying the history of early African-Americans and early Africans in this country,” Keen said.
The oldest is the simple gravestone of Hector Butcher, who died in 1720 at 37 years old, after arriving in Newport from Barbados with the single woman who owned him.
While the design of many of the graves are similar to others in the Common Burying Ground, there are some in God’s Little Acre where the faces of the “souls” on the headstones have African features. The names on the older graves also reveal the origins of the dead, who often were given African names according to the day of the week they were born.
Their history is set in slate and marble headstones, carved by six generations of masons and stone carvers in the Stevens family, as well as an African man who was enslaved to the family. Pompe Stevens is believed to have carved the gravestone for little Pompey Lyndon and for his brother, Cuffe Gibbs, making these headstones some of the first signed African-American pieces of artistry in North America.
African-Americans founded the first Free African Union Society in Newport in 1780, which ensured proper burials and markers, and cared for widows and families, and some of its founders and early members are buried here.
A tour through the cemetery invites contemplation about the community that once lived here and the contributions they made. Historians have connected the names on the gravestones to documents and records and have pieced together the stories of the lives of the people buried here, at colonialcemetery.com, sponsored by the 1696 Heritage Group founded by Theresa Guzmán Stokes and Keith Stokes, whose ancestors are buried in God’s Little Acre.
“It is the connection to the history of the city,” Keen says. “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 it is today.