Thanks to a grant from the National Trust of Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the Preservation Society will be collaborating with Newport’s Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission to preserve a nationally significant burial ground and Newport's largest physical manifestation of African American Heritage. This grant will fund the conservation of 30 colonial-era headstones at God’s Little Acre, thus preserving the largest and most intact African burial ground in the county and a critical resource for scholarship.
Newport is home to numerous significant sites visited by millions each year interested in learning about the people and events that shaped the city. Like museums and other historic sites, this site is a portal to the past, a display of artworks, and an inspiration to the next generation. The preservation of this site brings greater awareness to its significance and the buried individuals by connecting visitors, residents, and students of all ages with Newport's African American Heritage.
Although the total number of individuals buried in God’s Little Acre is unknown, there were at one time approximately 275 professionally carved slate headstones – a sizeable collection that is unrivaled elsewhere in the country and quite unusual. The abundance of professionally carved headstones at the site, for both freed and enslaved Africans, is reflective of Newport’s colonial heritage and its African community.
God's Little Acre is home to numerous individuals, whose lives shaped colonial Newport. During the 18th century, Newport was among the five leading commercial centers in North America. By 1769 the city operated up to 600 ships - a third of which were engaged in foreign trade - at over 150 wharves. Historical records reveal that Newport’s maritime trade economy was largely dependent upon the skilled work of enslaved people. Enslaved Africans were often brought to Newport at a young age to apprentice, training for 5-10 years to master a skill, such as rope making, shipbuilding, furniture making, and stone masonry.
Among the vibrant individuals buried in God's Little Acre is Pompe Stevens, an African craftsman. At least two headstones, Cuffe Gibbs (1728-1768) and Pompey Lyndon (1763c-1765), documented in God’s Little Acre are attributed to Pompe Stevens, an African craftsman. The Gibbs headstone is inscribed "This stone was cut by Pompe Stevens in memory of his brother Cuffe Gibbs." Pompe's work may be among the first signed African artwork in the United States. Pompe was enslaved to William Stevens, son of John Stevens – founder of the John Stevens Shop of stone carvers, which is still in operation today. Pompe's style of carving matches that of William Stevens who most likely trained him, making further attribution difficult. Stories of talented individuals like Pompe Stevens can be discovered throughout God's Little Acre. The site also includes headstones for other well documented members of Newport's colonial African community, such as Duchess Quamino, Arthur Tikey, and Pompey Brenton. For others, these headstones are the only record of their existence.
THE THREAT OF LOSS
Without intervention, the harsh New England climate threatens this historic site. The layered quality of slate makes it sensitive to moisture and freeze-thaw cycles, resulting in delamination and material loss. Since 1903, when a survey identified 275 slate headstones in God's Little Acre, the site has suffered an incremental loss of nearly 80 slate headstones.
In April 2019, a survey documented the varying conditions of the remaining headstones and evaluated the stones based on the level of work needed. This survey identified 84 headstones in need of conservation work at an estimated $150,000 needed to conserve them all.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
If you are interested in becoming involved with Newport's Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission or contributing to the conservation of Newport’s cemeteries, visit the commission's website for more information.
The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society will be offering tours at God's Little Acre on two Saturdays, July 20th and August 17th at 4 p.m. and two Sundays, July 28th and August 25th at 10:30 a.m. Tickets are $10/Adults (over 21), $5/Students (13-21), and free under 13.
Tickets can be purchased at here.
For more information on God's Little Acre and Newport's Cemeteries visit:
www.ripnewport.com/ or @RIPNewport