Learning Black history’s past at God’s Little Acre

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  • Published on March 21, 2023
  • Last Updated May 15, 2023
  • In Culture

A return to African heritage and history found in one Common Burial Ground that tells a story of survival in Newport, RI.

Walking through America’s oldest and largest colonial African burial ground, God’s Little Acre in Newport, Rhode Island, the past informs the present for Keith Stokes, advisor to the Rhode Island’s Black Heritage Society.

This sacred ground holds rich stories about African heritage in Rhode Island and for Strokes it’s personal. Even though there are no more active burials at God’s Little Acre, his family owns the last active plot. He buried his mother there in 2021.

“We’re repairing harm,” says Stokes, referring to wanting to have fuller African historical narratives told from a Black perspective that go beyond the enslavement story of Africans by white elites.

Keith Stokes (right), an advisor to the Rhode Island’s Black Heritage Society, connecting the past and present at God’s Little Acre’s burial ground with coauthor Ian Fitzpatrick.
Keith Stokes (right), an advisor to the Rhode Island’s Black Heritage Society, connecting the past and present at God’s Little Acre’s burial ground with coauthor Ian Fitzpatrick. Photo courtesy of Tonya Fitzpatrick World Footprints

The stories of Stokes’ ancestors, the importance of these and other African heritage stories being told and interpreted by Black people, and their connection to the present-day case that he and others are making for reparations–all converged during the reflective and thought-provoking tour of the burial grounds in Newport. He says, “Reparations is simply repairing harm, and that’s more than a cash allotment.”

As Stokes discusses his Newport and Philadelphia ancestry and his maternal family connection to the Barclays Bank founders, he shares the story of Ottobah, his ancestor born into slavery in Jamaica in 1788 as Robert Barclay. “He was able to immediately, through his Reparations effort, build a life as a free African in America, surrounded by some of the most well-known, successful black entrepreneurs–such as James Forten,” says Stokes. “Black religious leaders such as Absalom Jones and Richard Allen—those were all his contemporaries.”

Entering the colonial cemetery, God’s Little Acre, there’s a message of remembrance and respect.
Entering the colonial cemetery, God’s Little Acre, there’s a message of remembrance and respect. Photo courtesy of Tonya Fitzpatrick World Footprints

For Stokes, this was an equity investment that Forten, Jones and Allen made in Ottobah, who was emancipated in 1795 to live as a free African in Philadelphia. Reparations are not only monetary–they’re part of the rich cultural and religious heritage handed to subsequent generations of African-Americans that Stokes wants us to celebrate.

These stories from God’s Little Acre, and more like them, are a part of the tapestry this passionate historian weaves in as he connects the important lessons this place holds in Rhode Island’s future.

For more historical narratives from God’s Little Acre, listen here.

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