With historians in Newport, Brown archaeologists preserve a crucial piece of African American history

Three graduate students in archaeology worked with the Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission in Newport, Rhode Island, to create an interactive map of God’s Little Acre, one of the oldest African and African American burial grounds in the country.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — God’s Little Acre in Newport, Rhode Island, is one of the oldest burial grounds for Africans and African Americans in the U.S. and the final resting place of untold numbers of individuals. Some were born across the Atlantic, others mere blocks away. Some died centuries ago, others just decades ago. Some were slaves, others free.

There’s Charity “Duchess” Quamino, born in 1753, possibly in Senegal or Ghana. Initially a slave who cooked for a wealthy family in Newport, she founded a catering company and eventually bought her own freedom. She was known to many as the pastry queen of Rhode Island and catered to George Washington twice.

There’s Phyllis Lyndon and her son Prince, buried together under a grave marker that may have been carved by her husband, Zingo Stevens. Phyllis died in childbirth; Prince died just two months later. The marker’s carvings are intricate — there’s a motif of a mother holding her child, and details of the infant’s curls are still visible, more than 200 years later.

There’s the first person known to have been interred in the burial ground, Sam Butcher, in 1720. And there’s the last, Ethel Peer, who died in 1990.

Details about the lives of those buried in God’s Little Acre — their biographies, their families, their ancestry, even their names — are in danger of slipping away as gravestones weather or recede into the Earth. 

That’s why a trio of archaeology students at Brown University is working with Newport’s Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission, whose mission is to preserve and revive their stories.

Drawing on their archaeological training, the three graduate students — Alex Marko, Dan Plekhov and Miriam Rothenberg — conducted a thorough survey of God’s Little Acre, recording the spatial location of the more than 600 grave markers on site. Using three-dimensional photogrammetry and aerial drone footage, the students have been working over several months to create an interactive map and database that anyone can access and use, from schoolchildren to tourists to fellow researchers.

Alex Marko
Alex Marko, a Ph.D. student in archaeology, was one of three Brown graduate students involved in the project.

“Right now, you have to know the cemetery to find specific people,” said Marko, a Ph.D. student in his fifth year at Brown’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World. “We are creating a resource that will allow anyone to look up and locate people who died in a particular year or who came from a particular family. The city is already planning to use this resource in their conservation efforts. The city already has walking tours here; now they can add new information and hand out maps.”

The database, the students said, not only preserves the often-overlooked history of free and enslaved black residents of Newport but also opens the door to more information and research, whether by amateur sleuths or academically trained historians.

“So much of this state’s wealth and capital and influence was built on slave money and on the slave trade, but that’s not the history that tends to get emphasized,” Rothenberg said. “Many of the people who are buried here are not represented in the historical record. We don’t have pictures of them or words written in their own hand. This is what we do have. Preserving the information in this burial ground is an important step in recognizing and celebrating the heritage of Africans and African Americans in Rhode Island more widely.”

Digitizing history

According to Marko, work on the database began after Giles Eyre, a local history enthusiast and volunteer with the Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission, reached out to him for recommendations on people or groups who could assist in mapping the location of the grave markers in God’s Little Acre. Eyre knew of Marko from previous work unearthing turn-of-the-century history in Rhode Island: In Fall 2019, Marko taught a Brown course called Archaeology of College Hill, where he supervised an ongoing excavation of a Gilded Age house in Providence.

“Immediately, I knew it was something interesting and important to do, because of the nature of the cemetery and the stories that could be told there,” Marko said of Eyre’s proposed project. “And I knew it was something we could easily do ourselves.”

The students had their work cut out for them. While several stories of the people buried on the site do endure, and some are even shared on walking tours or on museum signage, others remain unknown or are not publicly accessible. Slaves’ names, ages and residences were not included in censuses in Newport’s early history. Africans and African Americans were less likely to have learned to read or write, Marko said, so very few of their personal stories remain today. Even information about God’s Little Acre itself is lacking — the only known map of the cemetery is from 1903, and it is likely missing hundreds of names of those who had been interred in the two centuries before. A map of the original 1700s plot, if it ever existed, is now long gone.

“There is no surviving legacy map of the cemetery,” Marko said. “We are documenting everything in order to abate loss at this point.”

With help from the 1903 map, information provided by Eyre, and history that had been unearthed by Keith Stokes, a local scholar and descendant of some of the individuals buried at God’s Little Acre who maintains a website for the cemetery, the students were able to visit every known grave marker and record as much information as possible: names, birth and death years, relatives, epitaphs and occupations, as well as gravestones’ materials, shapes, thicknesses and conditions. At several markers, they took dozens of photos at every angle and stitched them together to create interactive three-dimensional models. And they flew a drone over the entire area to capture aerial video and photos, which allowed them to create a master map of the cemetery and develop graphics that documented its growth and evolution over the years.

Today, all the facts and visuals they collected live on a single interactive platform that they hope to share widely, so that everyone in the community can engage with this important history.

“We had access to a lot of the information about the people buried here, but we had no spatial data,” Rothenberg said — in other words, they knew the names of many who were buried at God’s Little Acre, but they didn’t know exactly where each of them was buried. “We’re linking an existing database with what’s on the ground and adding data we come across, so that someday, people can use a map on their phone or tablet to identify specific graves and interact with this site and its history more personally.”

All three researchers felt adamant about hosting the database on a free, open-access platform so that there was no barrier to access.

“We could do more with paid software, but that goes against the ethos of the project, which was community-focused from the beginning,” Plekhov said. “It’s a living product that people can access and engage with and build on.”

A more complete historical understanding

Though many residents of Newport know about God’s Little Acre — it’s one small corner of the city’s sprawling Common Burying Ground, a frequent destination for walks —Newport’s complicated history of slavery and racial discrimination is otherwise not well signposted, the Brown students said.

Residents may not know, for example, that many wealthy families in Newport publicly stated that they found the institution of slavery distasteful yet owned slaves themselves. Several families called their slaves “servants,” a word reserved for paid staff in many other communities. 

Modern-day Rhode Islanders may also not know that the first African slaves who lived in Newport were usually given new names by their owners — first names that were Biblical or literary in origin, a way for the owners to demonstrate that they were pious or highly educated; last names that matched those of their owners. When two slaves from different households married, they kept their separate last names. 

And though they walk through the cemetery often, residents may not realize that God’s Little Acre isn’t just the final resting place of free and enslaved Africans and African Americans — others, including some Greek Americans, were buried there as well.

These were facts that Marko, Plekhov and Rothenberg learned as they plotted out God’s Little Acre. What they learned cemented the fact that the history of slavery and race in the U.S. is anything but simple.

“There were often these epitaphs that mentioned the slave’s outstanding characteristics, like their faithfulness,” Marko said. “It was interesting to see how emotionally invested some slaveholders were in the people buried there. In Duchess Quamino’s case, her former owner said she convinced him that the two races should be considered equal — yet he did not free her.” 

“The story is always more complex than we think it is,” Plekhov added. “We know the bigger picture of the slave trade and how inhumane it was. You learn even more when you focus on individual people and individual experiences.”

The students hope their project kicks off a long-term partnership among Brown University, other local institutions and the city of Newport — one that sees students doing more to bring overlooked colonial history to the fore. And they hope the continuing research ultimately gives both visitors and local residents a more comprehensive view of life in colonial Rhode Island.

“Making people aware of this lesser-known history, telling these stories along with the stories of the whaling industry and the Gilded Age,” Plekhov said, “could drive us all toward a more inclusive future.”