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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

URI dedicates historic cemetery near its Convocation Center

KINGSTON, R.I. -- May 9, 2002 -- When the University of Rhode Island dedicated the Niles Farmstead Cemetery today, it added a page in Rhode Island history books that has long been missing.

During the 1700s, Rhode Island was involved in slave trade between Africa, the West Indies, and the southern states. It has been known that some Rhode Islanders also lived on plantations and held enslaved persons. The cemetery offers physical evidence.

Between 1729 and 1731, Nathaniel Niles acquired 350 acres in Kingston where he established a farm. It became one of the southern Rhode Island farms whose operations included enslaved labor of both African American and Native American persons. The farm operated until 1783.

A century passed and the Niles Farm faded from memory. The state purchased the land in 1888, which became part of the University of Rhode Island.

In 1999, engineers wanted to sink soil test holes on the corner of URI’s football field to prepare for construction of URI’s $54 million Convocation Center. To do that, a 1992 law required the university to call in archaeologists. Soil at the site suggested 40 graves, separated by a fence. While there is definitive evidence that the cemetery was owned by Silas Niles, a livestock farmer who owned several plantations and a number of slaves throughout Rhode Island, there is no definitive evidence giving the identity of the specific persons buried there.

The cemetery’s fence probably separated the graves of slaves from the Niles family, the archaeologists said.

Recognizing the site’s historic value and to honor the deceased, the University determined to preserve the site. Architects designing the Convocation Center revised their plans and relocated the center’s footprint by seven yards to accommodate the cemetery.

The University has since built a gray fieldstone wall to enclose the 1/4-acre site. The fieldstones come from old farm walls that were on the University campus. A wooden gate, facing the south plaza, completes the enclosure. A nearby plaque will inform visitors of the cemetery’s historic significance in Rhode Island.

Speakers at today’s community event were:

o Joanne Pope Melish, Ph.D. who has written and spoken extensively on the issues of slavery in New England. An associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, Melish is the author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England 1780-1860. (Cornell University Press, 1998.) Melish has previously taught at Brown, URI, and RIC.

o Ella W. T. Sekatau, Doctor of Humane Letters, who is the ethno-historian of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. She co-authored the essay, The Right to a Name: The Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials, 1750-1800, which won the Robert F. Heizer award as the best published article in ethno-history in 1997. For five years, she directed the Native American program at Plimoth Plantation.

For Information: Lawrence Bacher, 874-2026, Jan Wenzel, 874-2116

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