a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The wharves line the western side of the island; sometimes I stand at the end of one in the early evening and watch as the sun sinks into the bay.
As much as anything, I missed the wharves when I left for California. One of them, Bannister’s Wharf, was the site of my first job and a handful of summer crushes. My friend Stacey and I worked at the tee shirt store aptly named Wharf’s End. We sold shirts with silk screen patterns of nautical flags that spelled out Newport for those who wanted something classy and shirts with neon lobsters for those who didn’t. A window behind the register looked out to a dock where the rich tied their boats. Crowds of people streamed in throughout the day and night. It was a festive bunch, and I liked working in the middle of it. I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Handling the money and interacting with the other employees, some in their early twenties, made me feel like I was brushing up against a grown-up world of drinking and fun and independence.
At the next wharf over, Bowen’s Wharf, lobster boats unloaded their traps. A large building like an airplane hangar with one whole side open to the outdoors beckoned tourists to enter and wander through bubbling tanks crowded with rubber-banded lobsters, arranged by weight, float-walking in briny water until someone selected them for dinner. The wharves were a mix of commerce and recreation—restaurants with outdoor seating where people day-drank in the summer sun and let the buzz settle in and usher them to the evening. Families and couples and groups of friends, wandering in and out of sundress and scrimshaw shops, photo galleries and stores that sold overpriced soap.
Over the years, new shops have replaced those where I used to window shop during my work breaks. The store where I learned how to fold tees so that the patterns lined up is now a chain store and sometime in the years that I was away, a coffee shop opened up at the end of Bannister’s Wharf. Friends from out of town visit and we walk down to enjoy an afternoon ice coffee and absorb the feeling of a seaside town—the balance of bustle and dawdle. We sit in Adirondack chairs that face the harbor. I like to sink into them and talk with my friends and watch the stream of tourists.
There’s nothing to let you know that once boats crowded with people in chains anchored here. I’d grown up with the knowledge that the place I called home had been part of the transatlantic slave trade, but I didn’t know the role the wharves played. I never pictured the spot where the ships laden with enslaved human beings put down anchor. I thought of history more abstractly. A triangle on a map in a textbook. I was young when my mom told us about the city’s involvement in the trade. She learned of it when she started volunteering at the Newport Historical Society. She led walking tours through the city and practiced on my dad, sister, and me.
Like my mom, I was looking for ways to connect with the city and the people I lived alongside. My childhood friends had moved away and left me feeling unmoored in a place that was once familiar. When my graduate program gave me the option to partner up with a nonprofit as part of a class in the public humanities, I took advantage of the opportunity to join the Newport chapter of the Middle Passages Ceremony and Port Markers Project. They’d recently begun their work to plan a memorial for the free and enslaved Africans and African Americans who labored here, started families here, built homes here, worshipped here, buried their loved ones here. The history of Black Newporters, while preserved by many, isn’t visible in the way that other aspects of the city’s history are. Instead, Newport is associated with the lore of the seaside mansions, the second or third homes of the tycoons of the Gilded Age. We like, too, to be reminded of and to remind others of the nobler history of the city that is tied to the State’s origin story: Rhode Island, the birthplace of the separation of church and state.
If you walk through town, you’ll see a statue of dolphins, Christopher Columbus, and feet poking out of a wave. You can tour the mansions and the first Jewish Synagogue in the United States, enter the first Baptist Church, but there’s no building that calls out to tourists and residents to remind us of the Africans and their descendants who have lived and worked here for nearly 400 years.
The Port Markers group meets in a conference room at the Newport Public Library the first Tuesday of the month. It will be years before the memorial for enslaved and free Africans who once lived in this city—walked the same streets as I and hundreds of thousands, some years millions, of others—will be built. When I first joined the group, I wasn’t sure of my position and I was cognizant that my whiteness shaped the way I thought about whether or not I should offer my opinions or keep my mouth shut. Most of the people on the committee are retired, some are PhDs, some school teachers, a couple of historians. About half of the members are Black, the other half white. One member is a descendant of the Africans who were first brought to Newport in the Colonial era.
When the group’s chairwoman Mrs. J learns that I’m getting my PhD in English, she asks if I can help to write their first grant. I spend hours with her learning about what the group has done so far and what they plan to do. I take the information she gives me and turn it into a narrative. We win the grant and start the slow process of fundraising and development that is necessary for a project like this to come to fruition.
At one meeting Mrs. J announces, “Some of us walked the wharves. We had documents and old maps showing the location of the rum distilleries.” Sugar and molasses brought up the Atlantic Coast from the Caribbean provided the ingredients for the rum; the rum was then loaded on boats bound for Africa and traded for human beings. The boats returned carrying enslaved Africans to neighboring wharves in Newport or other ports up and down the coast or back to the Caribbean. It was at this meeting that I came to identify a particular location in my hometown—one where I’d earned my first paycheck, laughed with friends, eaten meals, and strolled with visitors to give them a flavor for the town—with the slave trade.
I think the memorial should be built along the harbor, as do others, somewhere that would speak to the ways in which the ocean and the passage across, the arrival from somewhere else, is inextricable from the settling of this city and countless coastal communities. We should build it in a place that the throngs of visitors will stream past. Mrs. J believes that the memorial belongs elsewhere. On a small square of land off the main drag. I fear it won’t have the foot traffic it should, but Mrs. J has her reasons that are tied to her own memories of growing up as an African American in Newport. “I was on the second floor of the Colony House, the other day,” she tells us at one meeting, “and I could see Liberty Square from out the window.” I pictured the big brick building at the head of Broadway. It’s one of the sites where our Founding Fathers read the Declaration of Independence on the front steps in 1776, and later George Washington set foot in the building. Another piece of history that the town has chosen to preserve. Mrs. J goes on to tell the group that Liberty Square is across the street from the Quaker Meeting House and that Black citizens of Newport will remember the Meeting House as their recreation center. “We grew up going there.” The Black members on the committee nod. I’m made aware that a body of knowledge has been absent from my own memories and connections with the town.
Mrs. J concludes by telling the committee, “and just down the street from Liberty Square is God’s Little Acre. When I saw this square of land, I felt something. I knew that this was our spot.”
No one suggests the harbor front for the site after she speaks. I understand that the significance of a given place is granted by the people who occupy that space. And over the months, I start to see that by building a memorial here a new meaning will be woven into this small square.
I’d walked and driven by the Meeting House hundreds of times thinking I knew most of what there was to know about the history of Newport. God’s Little Acre was a name I’d heard only recently. It was a part of my town that had existed behind the veil of whiteness.
I was drawn to the cemetery by its pastoral beauty. I soon discovered that what looks like one sprawling cemetery was actually two, The Common Burial Ground with its cache of graves from the Colonial era and the newer Island Cemetery established in 1848. My first walks through the cemetery were relegated to Island Cemetery. A chain-link fence separated it from the adjacent plot. Rather than exiting one cemetery and walking down the street a little way to enter the second, I hoped to find a hidden path that led into the older graveyard. I was rewarded one day when two young women, several paces ahead of me, walked past a mammoth memorial and ended up on the other side of the fence in the Common Burial Ground. I waited a minute before heading towards the memorial and noticed the break in the fence that they’d squeezed through.
Those first months that I made the cemeteries part of my walking route, I was enamored of the way The Common Burial Ground permitted me to time travel. Following the grassy paths through the graves, I was soon surrounded by a sea of markers from the 17th and 18th centuries, and as the path curved to the south, several colonial houses came into view so that it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that what I saw differed little from the landscape that people looked out on one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago.
Now the stones are weathered and sinking into the earth. Some of the dates and names are hard to read from years of wind and ice and rain and heat. Unlike the flashy newer markers in the Island Cemetery—the obelisks, urn topped markers, and sarcophagi—many of the graves in The Common Burial Ground are similar in shape. They resemble a silhouette of head and shoulders. A larger semicircle in the middle is bookended by two smaller semicircles that don’t rise as high as the central head of the stone. On some stones, angels’ faces and wings hover over the person’s name. Angels that somehow appear both mystical and stoic, otherworldly with a sharp and steady gaze.
I see the angels without noticing that some are carved to look different than others. I read the names and dates and feel a kind of reverence that I live so near to these stones that predate the founding of this country, but it’s not until I join up with the Port Markers Project that the real significance of what I pass by and walk through reaches me. That’s how I learn that some of those stones mark the burial place of free and enslaved Africans. God’s Little Acre is the name Black Newporters gave the plot of land where their ancestors are buried. Even after learning this, I’m not sure which graves are those of the Black founders. Where can I find them amidst all these stones? One day, instead of taking the shortcut through the fence, I pass by the gate and notice a plastic weather-proof box stuffed with brochures. I pick one up and unfold it to reveal an incomplete map of the cemetery that shows where God’s Little Acre is located in respect to the rest of the cemetery and there’s a list of the names of the more prominent people buried there.
I walk to the north end of the cemetery and try to match the names on the brochure with the names on the stones. A couple of cherry trees with branches that grow low to the ground surround the graves. The stones, like the others in the cemetery, face west towards the harbor. The harbor that opens up to the ocean that these dead crossed. A journey that took them, against their will, from their homes on the western coast of Africa thousands of miles away.
The meaning of common in the context of this burial ground goes back to origins of Rhode Island as a separate colony. King George II granted a charter for the colonists to establish a place where people could worship as they wished. A common burial ground is one in which the people buried within need not be affiliated with any denomination or congregation. Baptists are next to Quakers. Anglicans buried next to Congregationalists. People of African descent interred next to people of European descent. Common also designates something is “shared alike by all people,” that “belongs to all people.” The ground here is shared ground; it isn’t privately owned or owned by one person. It is owned and cared for by the city. And common can also mean “free to be used by everyone, public.” Everyone has not always meant everyone, but here in the burial ground there are traces of more everyones than there are in other parts of Newport. This history hasn’t been covered up or erased, yet it’s also easy to miss unless you know what to look for. I’d walked past the graves of colonial Black Newporters dozens of times without knowing what I passed. And not until I started writing about this space did I notice the large sign with a gold angel head on top and the words “God’s Little Acre” etched underneath. The sign tells visitors that this is one of the largest sites in the country of colonial graves of Africans and African Americans. An African proverb at the bottom of the sign proclaims, “All men climb the ladder of death.” This too speaks of the commonness of where I stand. Eventually we all meet the same end.
I’d missed the sign because rather than standing at the entrance that I walk past, it faces a busy artery that leads into the main downtown area but there are no sidewalks on the street and no shoulder between the road and the cemetery, so it doesn’t get foot traffic and the cars drive by too quickly to know what it says. To read the sign, you need to already be in cemetery; either you’re wandering through as a resident and you happen upon this sign and the knowledge that it carries, or you come to the cemetery with the specific purpose of visiting these graves.
I’m often the lone walker in the Common Burial Ground but from time to time I see someone else who’s followed their dog over from the Island Cemetery. In the three or so years that I started making this one of my walking routes, the weight of the snow and the choking of the vines took down a section of the chain-link fence that separates the two cemeteries. Rather than repairing it, the town apparently decided to cut it down and remove it, so now there’s no boundary between the two graveyards. The section of fence that came down happens to be by the cherry trees that shade some of the graves in God’s Little Acre. I like to think that this opening brings more people in, that they see the sign in the distance and are curious and walk over to read it, that they’re more observant than me.
Some postmodern philosophers have found that the botanical structure of the rhizome is an apt metaphor for the way in which knowledge is disseminated and shared. Instead of understanding knowledge as trickling its way to the masses from a top-down model, or a notion that it originates form one central point, to view the world through the metaphor of the rhizome is to recognize that there are infinite loci of knowledge. Knowledge springs out of the earth and what appears as its own isolated organism is actually intricately connected to other shoots of ideas in a weblike structure.
I think of our work on the memorial as one example of knowledge pushing up through the earth and cement and across the centuries so that people in Newport, whether they are seeking out this kind of knowledge or not, will happen upon it, interact with it, learn.
Underneath the town the rhizomic structure spreads out and bursts through the soil at God’s Little Acre as it will in Liberty Square one day. Then there’s the work of a sister group, The Rhode Island Slave History Medallions organization. They’re placing markers throughout the town that resemble the tombstones in God’s Little Acre—with angels like a crest at the top, a QR code in the middle, and the words Rhode Island Slave History beneath the code.
In this way, the replicas of stones have brooked the border of the cemetery and are meeting the tourists and townspeople where they walk when looking for a place to eat or to buy a souvenir. Places that hold a history that so many have tried to keep hidden or relegated to the past. The QR code brings the visitor to a virtual location where more information can be accessed. The web of the rhizome extends out into that other Web.
It’s on the Web that I learn that some of the gravestones at God’s Little Acre were carved by Black Newporters. Pompe Stevens, taken from Africa and brought to this coastal city in the 1600s was trained the skill of stone cutting by the man who owned him. Pompe gave the angels on the stones African features and etched his name into the stones so that they are considered some of the oldest forms of colonial art by an African in the Americas. The website for God’s Little Acre also notes that our concepts of Africans’ and African Americans’ experiences in the Colonial era and the early years of the United States are often associated exclusively with slavery. This is one part of the history of Newport that people are working to bring to the surface, and it should be accompanied by multiple stories, one of which is that the first African trade union was founded here in Newport.
If you stay in the same place for some years, you start to hear stories about it and learn things that might otherwise go unknown. Meeting with the Middle Passages Port Markers Group places me with people who have memories and knowledge that differ from mine. At one planning meeting, the architect that the group has hired to design the memorial shares his belief that memory is collective. A place is not just the essence of what it is to one person but to communities of people across time.
I learn more of Newport from the people I meet in the group and I learn it from walking the streets and reading signs and noticing what the landscape and architecture have to tell me. And from the visits I make to websites to continue to learn more about this city that is both a part of me and a place that I am a part of. One site directs me back to the wharves. On my screen, I see a group of people gathered just months ago, in the midst of the pandemic. I can tell this because they are masked. They’re standing at Bowen’s Wharf to witness a ceremony for the installment of the first Slave History medallion in the city. They occupy the same space where enslaved Africans first landed in this country and were forced to work in the maritime trades, making ropes and barrels and sails so that more goods and humans could be transported across the Atlantic. But the work they were made to participate in to bolster the trade also left them with a set of skills, a different type of trade that several were able to buy their freedom with and earn a living from. They then organized and pooled resources so that they could buy stones to mark the lives of their friends and loved ones.
I decided to walk down to the wharf one snowy afternoon to see the medallion. I’m in the middle of writing about the burial ground and my unfolding perception of the place that I call home and I don’t want to write about the medallion without having seen where it is inlaid in shingles of an 18th century building, which is now a clothing store. The store is across from the Lobster Company and an outdoor hut that sells tickets for harbor tours. Though this part of town empties out in the winter, there are still a couple of people walking the wharves. They pass as I’m stopped to take a picture of the medallion and to scan the QR code. Maybe after I leave one of them will walk over to the corner of the building to see what I’d been looking at. Knowledge has to be artful in order to reach us sometimes.
Elizabeth Foulke is a PhD student at the University of Rhode Island and the senior editor of The Ocean State Review. Her essays and poetry have appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Solstice, Grub Street Literary Magazine, and others. In a former life, she worked as a middle and high school English teacher on both the East and West Coasts.