Hundreds of bodies discovered under Rhode Island highway during search for gravesite

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CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — A Rhode Island woman’s search for her relative’s displaced gravesite led to the discovery of nearly 1,000 people buried beneath a local highway and an unmarked mass grave containing hundreds of bodies.

Both discoveries were connected to state institution cemeteries in Cranston, where more than 5,000 of Rhode Island’s poor, sick or mentally ill residents were buried between 1875 and 1953.

Maria da Graca has been searching for her great-great-grandfather’s final resting place for more than a decade.

WPRI obtained documents showing her relative, Antonio Coelho, was originally buried in State Institution Cemetery No. 3 in 1941. He was then one of 577 bodies the state dug up and reburied in an unmarked mass grave in State Institution Cemetery No. 2 in 1975 to make way for an industrial complex.

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“This is an abomination,” da Graca said. “This is really a bad mark on the state of Rhode Island.”

“These people were in their final, eternal resting places, and they were dug up and dumped,” she said.

She said she was told at one point that Coelho was buried in State Farm Cemetery. In the 1960s, the state built Route 37 through part of the cemetery, and da Graca was worried her relative was buried beneath the state highway.

In 2006, human remains were found by the side of Route 37, resulting in 71 people being reburied in State Institution Cemetery No. 2. But Pegee Malcolm, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries, said that many more people were originally buried under Route 37 and that 800 to 1,000 bodies are still buried under the highway.

According to the R.I. Department of Transportation, tens of thousands of people drive on Route 37 every day. When asked if RIDOT was aware there may be nearly 1,000 people buried under Route 37, spokesperson Charles St. Martin responded: “Yes, RIDOT is aware.”

Malcolm showed WPRI the location of the overgrown unmarked mass grave, where Coelho was reburied in 1975.

Malcolm said the plaque indicating where the mass grave is located was stolen roughly five years ago.

When Coelho’s body was dug up and reburied in 1975, no one in the family was contacted, according to da Graca.

“I’m not looking for acknowledgment,” da Graca said. “I want a respectable place where I can bring my children to come and say, ‘Thank you.'”

Coelho was the first person in Rhode Island from Cape Verde to buy a packet ship in 1891. At the time, packet ships helped immigrants come to Providence for work, and the ships transported mail, money and clothes to their families back home.

The Providence Children’s Museum has featured Coelho in an exhibit since it opened in 1997.

“All of our research indicated he was a really important voice in the community,” said Caroline Payson, the executive director of the museum. “[Coelho] was very supportive of the immigrants who came over, and I think helped build that community.”

But Payson acknowledged that Coelho’s story has a sadder ending than the museum lets on.

Because Coelho was from Cape Verde, laws at the time forbade him from owning a ship in his name. The ship’s captain took advantage, intentionally sinking Coelho’s ship, the Nellie May.

“And once that happened, the ship had to go up for auction,” Payson said. “So, it went up for auction, the captain bought it at a reduced price, and Antonio lost it.”

“That sort of set a spiral of his life into poverty, until he died,” she said.

Coelho, who had once lived on Wickenden Street in Providence with his wife and kids, was forced to live at the state institution in Cranston.

For the museum’s visitors, Payson said Coelho’s exhibit teaches kids a valuable lesson about Rhode Island’s immigrant experience.

“It gives them that connection to someone who lived an extraordinary life, and they’re able to see it,” she said.

Da Graca is not convinced Coelho is in fact buried in the unmarked mass grave at State Institution Cemetery No. 2. She vows to keep searching.

Lisbeth Pettengill, RIDOT’s communications director, said in a statement: “RIDOT is going back through historical documents to trace the path for Antonio Coelho.”

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