My Turn: The value of a stolen life?

  • The gravestone of an enslaved, 2-year-old Black child, like so many others in a neglected part of God’s Little Acre, a Newport graveyard, gives the owner the person once belonged to. The graveyard is the oldest and largest burying ground for African Americans in the United States. PHOTO BY KEITH STOKES



Published: 3/12/2023 7:41:19 PM
Modified: 3/12/2023 7:40:58 PM

One recent blustery February afternoon, my partner and I took a walk through the Common Burying Ground in Newport, Rhode Island. Established in 1640, it contains 31 acres of Colonial headstones.

We walked, leaning into the sharp ocean gusts that whipped tears from our eyes. Our destination was not the rows of markers commemorating those who came to exploit the bounty of an American seaport, but rather a neglected corner where the gravestones are crumbled and decayed … set apart from the rest of the graveyard.

God’s Little Acre is the oldest and largest burying ground for African Americans in the United States. Most intriguing is the fact that the graves are marked with headstones, instead of nothing at all, as was the case for most slave cemeteries.

Elsewhere in America, those are forgotten in overgrown woods with scattered rocks as the only indication that someone is there. A slave burial ground with carved headstones that still stand is one of the things that distinguishes Newport from other cities in America.

Newport has the uncomfortable distinction of having been the largest slave port in North America. About 100,000 stolen Africans arrived in Rhode Island on slave ships, and at one point 20% of the population in Rhode Island were enslaved Blacks. According to one source, one in three white Newport families owned slaves.

These enslaved Black Africans worked for white ship captains, apprenticed to white tradesmen, and served white families who owned their bodies and any profits generated by their labor.

In the lonely graveyard permanently imprisoning my ancestors, stone markers jutted up from the frozen earth like broken teeth. We separated, each of us lost in a palpable grief that misted up through the dead grass. So many carvings bleakly memorializing mothers, fathers, children, babies … 300 enslaved Black humans who walked this ground without the freedom to ever leave.

One grave shocked me so deeply that I gasped aloud. “Ann A Negro Child Belonging to Mr. Robert Oliver & Daughter to his Negro Mimbo Aged 2 years” I was repelled to see that even in death, the enslaved could not escape the grip of enslavement. Stone after stone listed a slave’s name, and then announced to which white owner they belonged.

On multiple gravestones of enslaved Blacks were the same slaveowner names: Robert Oliver, Henry Collins, Joe Almo, Silas Cook, Henry Bull, all governors, senators and merchants. Their houses still stand in Newport, and streets are named after them. They prospered on the coerced labor of Black people who then died without even the luxury of owning their own inscription on their gravestone.

In contrast, as we trudged back to our car through the white area of the graveyard, we saw the same names that usurped the sanctity of those final headstones of the enslaved, only now the slaveowners’ names were freshly etched on shiny new granite monuments.

Later, we had dinner at a pub on one of the oldest streets in Rhode Island. On the wall, my partner noticed a framed newspaper article about a Billy Bull. The article was from the 1940s, 70 years after slavery was abolished. Billy Bull was likely a descendant of Henry Bull, who bought and sold people and put his name on their gravestones after stealing their labor and their lives. My heart lurched.

Cornell Law School defines restitution as “a remedy associated with unjust enrichment in which the amount of recovery is typically based on the defendant’s gain rather than the plaintiff’s loss.” Hundreds of my ancestors were enslaved. Their bodies were used to line the pockets of white ancestors of people living today.

My Black ancestors did not profit from their own enslavement. They earned wealth but did not accrue it, as the profit they earned was stolen by those who stole their bodies and their freedom. Their children’s potential wealth was stolen before they were even born, as chattel slavery meant that their mother’s white owners profited from the potential labor her offspring would generate.

Not a penny was handed down to my grandparents, my parents, to me, or to my children, because the generational profits generated by the forced labor of our many ancestors filled the bank accounts of white slaveowners, passed from white parent to white child in wills, and was used to fund investments into exploitation of more enslaved ancestors, and to buy land and power.

Restitution paid to Black descendants of enslaved Africans would both acknowledge the irreparable harm done to generations of Black families and that the wealth accumulated by this country was stolen and should be returned to the descendants of those who earned it.

But according to a nationwide UMass poll in 2021, only 28% of whites in America support the idea of reparations for descendants of enslaved Blacks. Mitch McConnell, whose great-great-grandfathers owned slaves, and who is worth over $30 million, said, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible for is a good idea.”

In America, white descendants of slaveowners funnel their stolen generational wealth into glittering monuments to honor their slave-owning ancestors while they allow the gravestones of the enslaved who earned them their wealth to molder into secret oblivion.

The immeasurable chasm between the wealth of those whose ancestors stole and those whose ancestors were stolen will never be repaired until white Americans decide to care.

Tolley M. Jones lives in Easthampton.


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