God's Little Acre: Slavery and Race in a Colonial Burial Ground

"God's Little Acre" has become one of the most talked about sections of Newport's famous Common Burial Ground. Although many Americans (particularly in the North and West) like to think of slavery as a "Southern problem," slavery was an important part of the northern economy well up until the time of the Revolution. Indeed in the colonial era, much of Newport's economy was based directly or indirectly on the triangle trade. For those who want to learn more about Northern slavery, Joanne Pope Melish's Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860 (Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1998) is an awesome resource and a good read. As the place where Newport's people of color went after they died, God's Little Acre has become an important resource for scholars interested in race in the colonies.

Although often touted as an "African American" burial ground, the occupants of God’s Little Acre were diverse economically, racially and religiously. The 1774 Rhode Island census asked for the number of “whites,” “blacks,” and “Indians” in each household. Members of each of these categories were buried in “God’s Little Acre.” Moreover, the categories themselves do not map precisely onto twenty-first century notions of race, as an advertisement for a runaway “Indian boy” from the Newport Mercury shows: this graphic of a dark-complexioned man had for years been used by the Mercury to signify fugitive (black) slaves, but suddenly it seemed to apply to Indians as well. Indian and black intermarriage was on the rise in New England in the 1770s, and increasingly white New Englanders began to image “Indians” and “blacks” in a combined category of “colored” people (Silverman Faith and Boundaries, 232-33). Not surprisingly then, members of each of these groups, as well as a few (usually poor) whites, were buried in God’s Little Acre.

Newport’s African American community was also tremendously diverse in the 1770s. Approximately thirty percent of Newport belonged to the fluid category of “black.” Around one third of the whites in Newport owned slaves, but according to the 1774 census, there were also 153 free blacks living in 64 black households during the colonial era. There was no section of town specifically designated for African Americans: whites and people of color often lived in close proximity to one another in colonial Newport. Freed blacks and slaves in Newport had a range of occupations and economic experiences. While many blacks in Newport had severely limited social and economic prospects, some did quite well: Newport Gardner (Occramar Mirycoo), slave of merchant Caleb Gardener, knew English, French, and African languages, and taught Western music; slave Caesar Lyndon was highly literate and served as a scribe; Charity “Duchess” Quamino, slave of William Channing, gained her freedom and was renowned as a pastry chef. A number of blacks owned property around Newport (Youngken African Americans in Newport, 17, 49-50; See Newport Gardner's House at left). Although the African Union Society held services in the Peter Bours house (47 Division Street, below) as early as 1781, African Americans belonged to a variety of congregations (Youngken African Americans in Newport, 62). The gravestones in God’s Little Acre reflect this economic and religious variety.
Peter Bours house (47 Division Street), Location of African Union Society as early as 1781

Peter Cranston Jr. fell somewhere in the middle of this range of this economic and social diversity. The inscription highlights what W.E.B. DuBois would call the “twoness” of Peter Cranston’s life: as Peter Cranston’s stone indicates, his parents were Peter Cranston and his wife Phylis Rivera. The stone also indicates, however, that Peter—like his father--was owned by Aaron Lopez, the uncle of Isaac Lopez. Peter Jr.’s mother Phylis, however, was a “servant” of Jacob Rodriquez Rivera, Aaron Lopez’s father-in-law (Stores). Since Peter Jr. belonged to Aaron Lopez, presumably Peter Jr. lived in the Lopez home along Thames Street, albeit in the attic. His mother Phylis would have lived several blocks away in Easton’s Point, at the corner of Washington and Bridge in the “Lantern,” the oversized home of Jacob Rodriguez Rivera. Other members of the Cranston-Rivera clan surround the stones of Phylis, Peter, and Peter Jr. In death then, the Cranston-Riveras were able to achieve what they could not in life: a unified family space, no longer torn apart by slavery. The Cranston-Rivera stones make up a small portion of the approximately 450 stones in God’s Little Acre that are still standing and are identified by name on the 1903 map of the cemetery (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992: 166). In turn, God’s Little Acre makes up only a small portion of the over 8,000 graves in the Common Burying Ground (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992: 163). To learn more about this portion of the cemetery, and to see more stones, go to African Slave Markers in Colonial Newport, a website by Keith Stokes and Theresa Guzman Stokes. .Theresa Guzman Stokes
Cranston-Rivera Family Stones, God's Little Acre (Newport)

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