So Why Cemeteries?

I went to school for anthropology after a lifelong passion for human origins led me to eventually realize that people research that stuff for a living. My focus in school was on biological anthropology. Older the better. It took some serious changes in my perspectives, interest, and focus to start actively cultivating a passion for cultural anthropology.

Pedal Powered Anthropology has always been an exercise in observing my surroundings. If you’ve ever ridden a bike, you know how engaging it is. You’re engaging your entire body to stay upright, you’re observing your surroundings because a patch of sand that wouldn’t even be noticeable in a car is suddenly a grievous obstacle. And you’re simultaneously going fast enough to get somewhere, but slow enough to notice. It isn’t always intuitive where the Pedal Powered part of what I do fits in in ways that are more than just a novelty. But for me, it’s my entire perspective.

And being in Rhode Island, I refuse to believe anyone can travel even 3 miles without seeing a historical cemetery. They are everywhere. In fact there are 3,200 of them statewide. In a state that’s a whopping 1212 square miles, that works out to 2.63 per square mile, leaving Rhode Island with the highest density of historical cemeteries nationwide. That’s a lot. My interest in them wasn’t quite there off the bat. I mean, they were always interesting, but with my drive being for paleoanthropology the interest was never more than passing and I chalked it up to “someone else is passionate about that.”

I knew early on in my worth with Pedal Powered Anthropology that Rhode Island’s involvement with the slave trade was something I would like to research. But back in 2017 I didn’t really have a format focused enough to do it justice, and I didn’t have established research methods that would allow me to even produce a story worth your time. There was no way for me to add to what already existed. Adjua D’Wolf changed that.

Her stone being in such poor condition, with her husband’s (if he ever had a stone) being missing and his grave site unknown, and their “neighbor,” Judith Honeyman, who is known only by her stone and the inscription “a faithful servant,”—which becomes a more perverse statement each time I read it—stood in stark contrast to the rest of the cemetery, which was beautifully maintained. Adjua and Judith stood at the feet of and facing those who formerly enslaved them, seemingly subservient to them for eternity.

As I sat with Adjua, Judith, and presumably Pauledore for longer and longer, I became more and more curious. Where was Pauledore? Who was Judith? What was known about their lives. I got into the current state of that pursuit in History has a Life of Its Own. But from the frustration of struggling to find specific information about individual enslaved people at a time when access to historical collections is…severely limited at best, I started looking for other cemeteries at which enslaved people are interred.

This particular cemetery had an annex for the family slaves. It’s now apparently under a garden and a parking lot

And…it turns out there are a lot. Some are specific slave cemeteries. Some are within or just outside of family plots. Some are large-scale reinterments as a result of the incessant march of development taking precedent. But there are a lot. It started to seem as though cemeteries established before 1850, it’s a good bet at least one enslaved individual is buried there.

Glenn A. Knoblock backs up that notion in his fantastic book, African American Historic Burial Grounds and Gravesites of New England. In it, he essentially says that more often than not, a family or common burial ground in New England is going to contain the remains of at least one enslaved individual. It was just that prevalent.

So my focus broadened. From wanting to get to know a handful of enslaved individuals on a more personal level, to wanting to locate burials of enslaved people across Rhode Island, I’m now generally interested in historical cemeteries.

These cemeteries are not always easily accessible

Cemeteries in colonial New England started off as a utilitarian thing. “Bury pop, and put a stone there so we know where not to dig.” Of course there’s some sentiment there, but not quite as we understand cemeteries today. A generation or two later, with 15-20 stones of parents and children alike, stones became a bit more distinct. Not carved stones, but more than just a rock. Maybe you can identify them a bit more…tell them apart from a stone that tumbled off the nearby wall. Maybe chisel initials in the stone. And over time, the cemeteries took the shape we recognize and sacredness we understand today.

But for all their sacredness, 3200 is a lot of cemeteries. 1212 square miles might be reeeeeeeeal tiny as far as a states are concerned, but it’s not a small area. The Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Commission oversees the research, rediscovery, cleaning, and general maintenance of them. It’s broken down by municipality, with a couple of long-term volunteers in charge of each. They cannot keep up on it all.

I don’t know that there’s any way of knowing who this was

A cemetery needs maintenance as often as your home does. Do you mow your lawn or vacuum your living room weekly? Monthly? Twice a year? Two people making the rounds through their town and keeping up on literally hundreds of cemeteries is a tall order for anyone. I’ve helped clean cemeteries that are simply not touched because the volunteers cannot access them due to extreme poison ivy allergy.

These are historical resources that take us back to the roots of this country (and earlier in some cases!). They have their own stories to tell. Stories often untold because those at rest maybe weren’t the wealthiest or most educated or politically connected. History is written by those in charge, and there’s a reason why the Mark Anthony DeWolf cemetery is in beautiful condition, while “West Greenwich Historical Cemetery #140” is thickly overgrown with trees, thorns, poison ivy, and ferns with two stones having sunk into the decomposing leaf litter.

See the headstone?

Privilege transcends generations for those fortunate enough to have it in life. I am trying to do my part to help ensure that dignity isn’t reserved for the privileged.



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