“In Memory of Duchess Quamino, A free black of distinguished excellence: Intelligent, Industrious, Affectionate, Honest, and of Exemplary Piety, Who deceased June 4, 1804, aged 65.”
Quamino’s weather-worn marker, along with nearly 300 others, comprise a section of Newport’s Common Burial Ground known as “God’s Little Acre,” one of the oldest and largest colonial African burial grounds in the United States. Dating from the late 1600s, “God’s Little Acre” offers insight into the lives of enslaved and free Africans such as Quamino through the commemorative words and images etched into stone.
Although described as a “free black” on her marker, Quamino was enslaved in the home of William Channing until she bought her freedom. Quamino also lived in her master’s house, which was customary in urban seaports where slaves worked in trades and crafts rather than on plantations. Many of the slaves brought to Newport were young children who worked alongside their masters to learn skills like rum making, rope braiding, stone carving, candle making, and chocolate grinding. Quamino used her culinary skills to run a catering business out of her master’s house. Her entrepreneurial success allowed her to purchase her freedom and earned her the title “Pastry Queen of Rhode Island.”
Quamino’s inscription praises her “Exemplary Piety” and includes a hymnal verse: “Blessed thy slumbers in this house of clay, And bright thy rising to eternal day.” With these words, William Ellery Channing, the founder of the Unitarian Church and the author of the epitaph, recognized Quamino’s involvement in the religious community of Newport. Quamino’s husband John was also a devout Christian. After gaining his freedom, he studied alongside a minister at Princeton in preparation for missionary work in Africa, but their plans dissolved when John was killed aboard a privateer ship during the American Revolution.
Like many slaves in colonial Newport, the Quaminos experienced the wave of Christian revival known as the Great Awakening during which Protestant America sought to convert the African population. In Newport, some slaves were provided religious education, converted to their master’s religion, and worshipped with the family in the home and at church. The burial ground reflects the breadth of religious diversity present in the city through carvings of angels, Biblical verses, and acknowledgements of those who lived with virtue and piousness.
The markers also tell about the origins of the deceased through the traditions of names. The prevalence of Anglicized or phonetically spelled versions of names from the African Gold Coast revealed the homeland of many Newport slaves to be Ghana. Upholding the naming tradition of the Akan people, the Africans often had names that identified the day of the week and order in which they were born. The name “Quamino” is given to boys born on a Saturday. In Duchess’ case, “Quamino” was her married name after her husband.
Walking through “God’s Little Acre,” the leaning, faded colonial stones are joined by the new markers of their descendants, a tribute to the resilience and preservation of African heritage in Rhode Island.