Project Dignity honors historical cemeteries

Project Dignity honors historical cemeteries

Cumberland High School Archaeology Club members, from left, Juliana Karbonik, Megan Garson, Emily Mathers, Justin Henry and Shelby Munnelly accept a citation from Blackstone Valley Historical Society President Jason Dionne. With them are Mayor Bill Murray, Heidi Munnelly and faculty adviser Roderick McGarry, at the rededication ceremony of the restored Brown-Bartlett Historical Cemetery last Thursday, May 26. (Breeze photo by Richard McCaffrey)
Student archaeology club findings include lost graves

CUMBERLAND – Rod McGarry, a history teacher at Cumberland High School, says it’s not every day he finds students who want to dig up headstones and get their hands dirty working in a cemetery, but after 22 years of working at the school, he’s met a group of students who are eager to break out their shovels and do just that. So far, the group has uncovered more than lost 30 headstones, but they’re only getting started.

It all began when Shelby Munnelly, a junior at the school, contacted the Blackstone Valley Historical Society about a service learning opportunity.

Ken Postle, of Pawtucket, whose work in historical cemeteries has uncovered lost headstones and burial grounds in Pawtucket, Lincoln and Cumberland, quickly teamed up with Munnelly and other CHS students in their quest to carry out “Project Dignity.”

At the beginning of May, Munnelly and five of her peers formed the archaeology club at the high school, and have since been spending much of their free time at the old Brown Bartlett cemetery on the CHS grounds, now known as the Carpenter Lot, and the Staples Road cemetery, but are planning to expand their work to other sites in town.

“It’s like I’m bringing something back from the past to be known for the present and future,” Munnelly said.

She and her archaeology club peers sifted through historical cemetery recording documents online, and found that many names of Cumberland family members were listed, but the grave locations hadn’t all been pinpointed.

The CHS junior explained that when the high school was first constructed in the late 1950s, and the original Brown Bartlett cemetery was moved to what is now known as the Carpenter Lot on the CHS grounds, no children were listed in the cemetery that sits next to Mendon Road. But in just a month, the archaeology club has found two 1-year-old children’s gravestones and a 5-year-old as well at the site.

The headstones of Oliver Brown, 1, Silvester Brown, also 1, and Abby Ann Brown, 5, that date back to the mid-1800s were uncovered and propped back up by the CHS students. While there are records of people that were buried in Cumberland cemeteries, there weren’t records of many of their stones to match, McGarry explained. The site was once the location of the town’s poorhouse before CHS was built.

The oldest stones the group has found were placed in the early 1700s, but Munnelly pointed out that quaker headstones that had no transcriptions could pre-date those headstones.

McGarry said learning “happens at the high school in the classroom, but to see these students acting as historians and generating this … contagious passion for researching and investigating history,” is something he finds striking.

In terms of historical cemetery discoveries, McGarry said, “this is just a crack in the dam.”

Megan Garson, also a junior at the high school, said people wonder what the students are up to when they walk around with shovels, pokers, tree saws and rakes and Postle steps out of his van with tools in each hand. The group works by sunlight – not by the hour on the clock, Munnelly said.

Emily Mathers, a CHS junior, said she’s been learning about excavation and archeology in her anthropology course at the school and has been thrilled to work hands-on with the techniques she’s learning about in class. She, like Sarah Bonifacio, also a junior at the school, wasn’t sure what she was getting into when she signed up for the club.

The students gathered at the Carpenter Lot on the CHS grounds last week for a re-dedication ceremony of the cemetery, where Mayor Bill Murray and Jason Dionne of the Blackstone Valley Historical Society applauded the club members for their work. All of the headstones in the lot that had been either lying down or beneath the surface of the soil were properly stood back up in time for Memorial Day weekend.

McGarry said prior to the ceremony, Munnelly had put American flags in the ground for war heroes who had died, and a hush came over the group as the flag went into the ground. Marking those graves, McGarry said, is something that’s important to Cumberland families, as many of the ancestors of those who are buried in these historical cemeteries still call Cumberland home today.

The CHS students plan to keep working, even during harsh winter months, on their probe to recover history – but during the snowy season when the ground is frozen, they’ll focus on documenting all of their findings and adding the names of previously “lost” headstones to the list on Rhode Island’s historical cemeteries archive. McGarry said the students may publish their research once they compile everything they’ve revealed.

The history teacher said he hopes the club will continue to expand, and he has a long-term goal of securing a course where students can get outside to learn about archeology rather than only sit in the classroom. It’s an idea Principal Alan Tenreiro has been supportive of, McGarry said.

“Every day it’s like a mystery,” the history teacher said, where his students are discovering mistakes in cemetery documentation and are leaving behind a legacy – one that can last for the next 100 years.

Garson said she’s been awed by the respect people had when burying their beloved centuries ago. One particular inscription on a grave that stuck with her, she said, read “…don’t lie and weep, instead rejoice my life.”

She said she’s learned that “no rocks are insignificant,” and what might seem like a small stone in the ground can turn out to be a large headstone, lost to the soil.

Mathers, like the rest of the group, said their searches have been rewarding, as they’ve learned about the people of their own hometown. For those who were buried centuries ago, Mathers said, the club is “giving them the dignity they deserve.”

Some of the individuals who are buried in the Brown Bartlett Historical Cemetery, now known also as the Carpenter Lot, are:

Alvin Barlett, 1805–1833

Anna Bartlett, 1796–1818

Arnold Barlett, 1805–1839

Asa Bartlett, 1757–1839

James Bartlett, 1790–1847

Patience Arnold Bartlett, 1764–

Sarah “Sally” Barlett, 1781–1853

Abby Ann Brown, 1827–1832

Abigail Smith Brown, 1785–1816

Abna Brown, 1796–1826

Anna Ballou Brown, 1756–1832
Anne Brown, 1766–1782
James Arnold Brown 1777–1816
Oliver Brown, 1775–1776
Rachel Brown, 1789–1821
Ruth Ballou Brown, 1720–1806
Sarah Arnold Brown, 1751–1824
Silvester Brown, 1821–1822
Stephen Brown Sr., 1715–1795
Stephen Brown Jr., 1746–1787
Abigail Bucklin Brown, 1743–1777
Lieutenant Sylvanus Bucklin,
Peter Faneuil Jones, 1746–1796
Timothy Mason, 1736–1800 
Sylvester Smith, dates unknown
Elijah Brown, dates unknown

There are at least four unknown graves in the cemetery.

Student Shelby Munnelly, 17, project manager of the Brown-Bartlett Historical Cemetery restoration by the Cumberland High School Archaeology Club, holds pieces of a gravestone, recovered during the restoration, that will be kept with the grave.