Underground Journalists

By Zachary Block '99 / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007
The Grace Church Cemetery sits like an invisible island surrounded by rivers of traffic flowing in and out of Providence's hardscrabble South Side. Once a pastoral burial ground where local residents picnicked while attending to the graves of deceased relatives and friends, the cemetery is now a parched jungle of weeds, wildflowers, trash, and fading, overturned headstones. These days visitors are more likely to be vandals looking for mischief than families visiting their dead.

Among the regulars at the nine-acre cemetery this summer were five journalism students and a recent graduate, drawn by the 8,000 Rhode Islanders from the past two centuries who are buried there. Where drug addicts have found a secluded spot to shoot up, the visitors from Brown this summer saw row after row of stories. Aspiring journalists, the students and alumnus were on an unusual mission: to reconstruct the lives of the Grace Church Cemetery's dead. Their hope was that by telling the stories of a cross section of the people buried there - a man who was both a Rhode Island governor and a U.S. senator, scores of mill workers and orphans, an Episcopal bishop, and an African American aviator from World War II - they could help fill in the canvas of daily life in Providence from the early nineteenth century to the turn of the twenty-first.

The project, headed by Visiting Professor of English and Public Policy Tracy Breton, is part of the Undergraduate Teaching and Research Assistantship (UTRA) program, which funds paid collaborations between undergraduates and faculty members, including ten-week summer assistantships. This UTRA was the brainchild of Thomas G. Parris Jr., the CEO and president of Women & Infants Hospital in Providence. During a June 1999 drive through the surrounding neighborhood, Parris noticed the overgrown cemetery and wondered how it could be revitalized. Grace Episcopal Church, the cemetery's owners, had long been unable to pay for its upkeep, and in 2001 the church transferred ownership to a nonprofit created to hold the cemetery. The nonprofit's leaders hope to transform the cemetery into a park that would not only set the scene for traffic heading from downtown into South Providence but would give local residents a much-needed outdoor gathering place. The effort was named the Trinity Gateway Cemetery Renaissance Project, after adjacent Trinity Square.

The problem was how to pay for all the necessary improvements. The cost of cleaning up the cemetery, erecting new fencing and lighting, providing security, and establishing an endowment to pay for upkeep could reach as high as $3 million, according to Michael Paruta, the Women & Infants executive whom Parris asked to shepherd the venture. Paruta and his allies in the cemetery renewal project believed that the money could be raised from government grants, from various veterans and ethnic groups, and from prominent Rhode Island families with an interest in local preservation. But to get traction with donors, they needed a story to sell.

Paruta approached Breton, a Pulitzer PrizeÐwinning reporter for the Providence Journal, with the idea of enlisting students to write about the people buried in the cemetery. The fund-raisers would get their stories, and the students would be able to test their researching and writing skills. (Grace Episcopal Church and the South Providence Development Corporation joined with Women & Infants to fund the UTRA.)

As a journalist and journalism teacher, Breton normally shies away from writing on behalf of specific causes, but the cemetery restoration, she insists, is an exception. "The purpose [of the project] is to write stories that will get people to give money," she said, "and that's not the purpose of journalism. But if by writing about these people they end up being able to fix up the cemetery, that's a good thing."

The students spent the first week and a half of the UTRA systematically cataloging the cemetery's dead. They decided to limit themselves to those whose dates of birth and death could be determined - essential starting points for conducting their research. The students then began whittling down the list of candidates, heading first to newspaper archives in search of obituaries and then to dusty tomes in historical societies and probate files in city archives.

Some profiles were obvious - the Rev. John P. K. Henshaw, the Episcopal bishop, and Nehemiah R. Knight, the governor and senator, for example, were relatively well known - but the students soon discovered that little, if any, information appeared in the newspaper about the deaths of most of those buried in the cemetery. The students sometimes went days without making any progress. Potential leads turned into dead ends. Shoddy record keeping, multiple spellings of individuals' names, and a dearth of living descendants compounded the problem. "This project is so hit-and-miss," Caroline Ang '04 said during a visit to the cemetery in mid-July. "It's definitely a crap shoot."

According to Ang, it was luck that led her to uncover Silas Weston among the cemetery's dead. Weston, Ang learned, was a Civil War veteran who chronicled his journeys to a volcano in the Azores and to gold mines in California. Ang said she randomly decided to search the Brown library's database for Weston's name and discovered two pamphlets he had written detailing his trips.

Meanwhile, Breton met weekly with the students throughout the summer, helping steer them through the byzantine world of historical and genealogical records and keeping the project on track. One evening in early July near the project's midpoint, the class gathered around a conference table at the Providence Journal while Breton quizzed them on their research and tried to help them overcome roadblocks. Breton, for example, urged the students to find stories about people buried in recent years; this would demonstrate that the cemetery is not just a historical relic, and living relatives would be easier to find.

Meanwhile the students, a few of whom may continue working on the project this fall, updated Breton on their progress. Jen Sopchockchai '05 was writing about four children who drowned after falling through the ice on a skating pond. Maria DiMento '03 R.U.E. had picked up an important new lead earlier that day. On the trail of William P. Armstrong, a Tuskegee airman killed over Austria in World War II, she was having trouble finding records of his service or anyone who knew him. A few hours earlier, she'd discovered the existence of a veterans' lodge named after Armstrong, but no one seemed to know its location. (Later in the week, with the help of the American Legion, she found the lodge and during a visit stumbled upon an elderly man who claimed to be a high-school classmate of Armstrong's. "It was so exciting to find a real person," DiMento said later.)

As August approached, Breton prodded the students to begin the writing process. Because they were taking an approach different from their usual journalism practice, the students were unsure about how to craft their stories.

"I'm assuming that we could be a little creative with our writing, as long as it's factual," DiMento ventured.

"As long as it's factual," Breton said, having long since dismissed Paruta's proposal that the students mix fact with fiction to enhance the stories. "It doesn't have to be footnoted like an academic paper, but it has to be based on actual documents. You're trying to bring them back as people, but you're also trying to place them in their historical context." But, Breton stressed, the students were also not writing history papers. The students' focus, she said, should be on finding the most interesting stories.

On a hot summer day in July, Ang, DiMento, and Sopchockchai led a visitor on a tour of the cemetery. As they approached one of their favorite plots, a red marble monument shaped like a couch, they spotted two men and a woman smoking cigarettes and drinking out of paper bags.

"People just come here and do whatever they want without a sense of who's buried here," Sopchockchai said. She and her fellow UTRA students aim to change all that. Eventually, they hope, their stories will be packaged as fund-raising materials or a book. A few of the profiles could even end up on informational plaques placed around the cemetery.

Maybe, Sopchockchai suggested, if people knew more about the cemetery's dead they would treat the burial ground with more respect.

Zachary Block is the BAM's staff writer.
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September / October 2002