They say dead men tell no tales, yet for the past five years Michelle Valletta, a public historian, has been examining their tombstones, researching their lives and calling attention to their contributions to Rhode Island history.
Valletta is an alumna and adjunct faculty member at RIC who graduated summa cum laude in 2011 with a B.A. in history and earned an M.A. in history in 2013.
At 53, Valletta never thought she’d be a college graduate, let alone find her dream job, so late in life.
“I came from a first-generation immigrant family,” she said. “I wasn’t expected to go to college. I was told to get married and have babies. In high school I was told that I wasn’t college material and to just take typing and bookkeeping courses. But my dream was always to go to college.”
After 25 years of working in the private and public business sectors, albeit bereft of fulfillment, Valetta was laid off. She decided then and there to resuscitate her dying dream. She used her unemployment waiver to enroll at Rhode Island College.
“I’m more fulfilled now than I’ve ever been in my life,” she said. “Every faculty member in the History Department believed in me as did the Dean of Graduate Studies Leslie Schuster. They saw my worth and it gave me confidence.”
During her final year of graduate school, Valletta was invited by RIC Professor of Political Science and Public Administration Fran Leazes to join the North Burial Ground Project.
The North Burial Ground is one of the largest land holdings in Providence (110 acres) as well as the city’s oldest public cemetery, dating back to 1700. “It is the final resting place for more than 100,000 of our ancestors, including the famous, the infamous and some whose contributions to the community have gone unrecognized or forgotten,” said Valletta.
Valletta was asked to research and write a history of the North Burial Ground by Leazes, who recognized the site as an educational resource.
Valletta’s historical account is filled with fascinating details. Long before it was public burial ground, the land was the site of the first murder in Providence. Before the victim died, he allegedly cursed the perpetrators and the ground he died on. Valletta also found that in the 1810s there was an alarming number of grave desecrations by medical students and doctors who needed fresh corpses for medical experiments. And, up until the early 1830s, according to newspaper reports, an estimated 60,000 bodies were randomly buried without official documentation.
One of the goals of the North Burial Ground Project is to develop a series of online virtual tours about historical figures buried in the cemetery or people and events of relevance to the historical landmark.
Another goal of the project is to provide opportunities for RIC faculty and students to engage in interdisciplinary, experiential learning projects that benefit the greater Rhode Island community. Recent projects involved RIC computer science students who programmed and designed the North Burial Ground website and virtual museum, and RIC geography students who plotted GPS coordinates for mobile app walking tours of the cemetery. And experiential learning opportunities still abound for RIC film and theater students to make mini documentaries and for marketing students to come up with a business plan to market the site for tourism.
Valletta’s contribution – an extensive history of the cemetery – is ongoing. She is also engaged in a project of her own – exhuming the stories of the working-class interned at North Burial Ground.
Valletta explained that the majority of history written in Rhode Island focuses on people of wealth and influence. What gives her pleasure, she said, is discovering the stories of ordinary, working-class people whose stories would have never been told and whose contributions to the community would have gone unrecognized or forgotten had they not been unearthed.
William Pullen, for example, was a watchman in 1852 who was killed one night while investigating a group of brawlers, she said. Due to his death, the City of Providence instituted the first pension ever given to a widow of a fallen watchman. His death also initiated the practice of watchmen carrying guns.
In gathering these stories, Valletta is in a race against time. Many headstones, along with names and epitaphs, are disintegrating due to time, weather, vandalism or dislodgment caused by the roots of trees. “If the headstones are not preserved,” she said, “not only will the history of the people buried there be lost, a vital part of Rhode Island history will be lost.”
Leazes commended Valletta for being committed to the craft of the historian. “She is a credit to RIC and a valued member of the community.”
As for Valletta, she couldn’t be more fulfilled. Reflecting back on her 10-year relationship with Rhode Island College, she said, “In the last 10 years, I feel like I’ve just begun to live. I’m finally doing what I love.”