In 1999, when construction workers began laying out the footprint of what would become the University of Rhode Island’s Thomas M. Ryan Center, they had no idea that they would unearth a significant piece of Rhode Island History.
The building plans were finished and construction of the Ryan Center, originally the Convocation Center, was set to begin. Then Dave Lavallee, assistant director of communications and marketing, received an alarming phone call.
“I’ll never forget the project manager calling me and telling me ‘we’ve got a big problem,” Lavallee recalled.
Engineers were required by law to call in archaeologists to sink soil test holes on the corner of the football field in preparation for the new building. The soil samples suggested at least thirty-five graves buried in what archaeologists deemed, a sacred Indian burial ground.
“There were definitely some concerns,” Lavallee said. “We had a tight timeframe for construction and we thought we would have to move the whole footprint of the building away from the sacred ground,” he explained.
Paul DePace, director of capital projects, shared Lavallee’s concerns.
“Back in 1999 this was URI’s biggest construction project yet,” DePace said. “These graves meant that we had to consider entirely relocating the footprint.”
After some consideration and discussion with the local Narragansett Indian tribe, the project team decided to move the footprint of the Ryan Center seven yards to the North in order to leave the burial site undisturbed. Members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe then performed a ceremonial blessing over the burial ground.
In addition to moving the footprint, the university also built a gray fieldstone wall to enclose the Â¼-acre cemetery. The wall was especially significant because it was created from old farm walls on campus. A nearby plaque and wooden fence facing South complete the enclosure, named the Niles Farmstead Cemetery.
The plaque offers information about the bodies buried within the cemetery. While 32 bodies were found all within one area, four others remained separated from the group by a fence. The majority were members of the Niles family, a group of wealthy farmers in the 1700s who owned 350 acres of land in Kingston. The other four graves hold the remains of the Niles family’s slaves, some African American, some Narragansett Indians. After the construction of the stonewall enclosure, the slaves and their owners were no longer separated.
In May 2002, URI held a dedication ceremony to honor the Niles Farmstead Cemetery. Speakers at this public event included Joanne Pope Melish, Ph.D. who has written and spoken extensively on the issues of slavery in New England and Ella W. T. Sekatau, who is the ethno-historian of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Many people who collaborated on the Ryan Center building project were happy that the Narragansett Indians were able to cooperate with the university.
“In the end I think the Narragansett tribe was satisfied with the work we had done,” Lavallee said.
DePace agreed. “I think they had a chip on their shoulder, but they got over it and were able to work with us,” he said.