Brown University Students Explore the History of a Local African American Cemetery

Three graduate students in archaeology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, 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 United States.

Drawing on their archaeological training, the three graduate students 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.

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.

The research found that some of the people whose remains are buried at the site were born across the Atlantic, others mere blocks away. Some died centuries ago, others just decades ago. Some were slaves, others free.

Miriam Rothenberg one of the three students leading the project said that “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. 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.”

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