Thursday, July 28, 2016

Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage by Mark J. Sammons & Valerie Cunningham

This extraordinary collaboration between two noted historians, Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham, brings to vivid life an entire cultural history which has been, to this time, hiding in plain sight…or invisible, as had been the lives of many people of color in New England. Sammons is the cultural supervisor for New Hampshire’s premier large-scale land grant outdoor museum, The Strawbery Banke, which includes 10-acres of colonial-era buildings and artifacts, and a remarkable Black Heritage Trail, originally researched and organized by Valerie Cunningham. Cunningham has received innumerable awards and honors, including national recognition, for her groundbreaking work on 300 years of black history in Portsmouth and environs.

The Strawbery Banke

This exploration of black lives in the Portsmouth area beginning in the seventeenth century is granular enough for us to actually picture the layout of the house and surprisingly grand possessions of a freed slave, Pomp, and his wife Candace, as they negotiated their business and lives in a dominant white society and came out successful, respected, and eulogized at death. Portsmouth had always been an important seaport north of Boston, and regularly received shipments from further south, some of which included black folk as cargo. Slavery was a feature of life in Portsmouth until the 1840s, long after several states around them had already abolished slavery.

The authors change focus throughout the narrative, first closely describing life for individuals within Portsmouth society and then drawing back to scan history from the larger nation’s perspective. This extremely useful method allows us to put ourselves, white or black, into the context described. Anyone who has ever visited Portsmouth’s historic downtown and walked the buildings will forever after be able to picture how history played out. This book has an immediate resonance and relevance.

A fascinating historical detail you may be surprised to learn was that then-President George Washington, in his second term in Philadelphia, lost Ona Marie Judge, his housekeeper, expert seamstress, and slave, to self-emancipation in 1796. Judge had either accompanied Washington eight years before when Washington visited a prominent citizen in Portsmouth, or in Philadelphia became friendly with Portsmouth-native Tobias Lear, private secretary to Washington and tutor to his children. Otherwise, it is difficult to know why she would choose Portsmouth over all the other ports. She convinced a sea captain to take her north where she was recognized by one of Portsmouth’s white citizens, a close acquaintance of Washington’s. Washington wrote several letters promising Ona Marie her freedom upon his death, none of which Ms. Judge appeared to acknowledge or believe. Washington then sent his nephew to Portsmouth twice (!) to retrieve her. Ona Marie hid each time, finally marrying and settling in Greenland, a nearby town to Portsmouth.

The authors bring us through the Civil War and its aftermath, including documentary evidence of the Ku Klux Klan operating in Portsmouth, charting the changes, and the lack of change in the struggle to achieve true equality for blacks in New Hampshire. One sentence, “With the help of Black voters, Truman was reelected,” sent me on side research for hours when I realized I never really knew what the “Voting Rights Act,” signed in 1965, actually meant. This is what meaningful nonfiction is meant to do. Mention is made of October 26, 1952 when Boston University graduate student Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. came to speak for the 59th anniversary of the People’s Baptist Church, a program which included a choir solo by a student at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, Miss Coretta Scott.

A rich photo archive is reprinted in this book, including the printed record of the 1779 petition to the New Hampshire State Legislature by some twenty black men delivered just as state representatives signed The Declaration of Independence. Those men, some of whom fought in the war for independence alongside their white owners, petitioned the legislature to recognize that “freedom is an inherent right of the human species” and “that private or public tyranny and slavery are alike detestable to minds conscious of the equal dignity of human nature.” It is a gorgeous piece of rhetoric, written in elegant English and reprinted in the New Hampshire Gazette several months later, as directed by the state's legislative body. Ostensibly this was meant to give the white community an opportunity to make comment, but it appears no further action was taken on the petition, with discussion of it delayed indefinitely. Some of the petitioners were free men, according to census records, ten years later. Some were never freed.

A “Negro burial ground” was uncovered in Portsmouth when the city began street renovations in 2003. NPR reported on that discovery. Ten years later the gravesite has been blocked to major traffic and is now the site of memorial to one of the signers of the 1779 petition, Prince Whipple, and to other unnamed but not forgotten members of Portsmouth’s first black communities. Get the book; see the memorial; visit the museum. It is history come alive.

MARK J. SAMMONS is the Executive Director of Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth, and has served as President and Executive Director of the Newburyport Maritime Society, Director of Research at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, and Coordinator of Public Buildings at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.

VALERIE CUNNINGHAM, award-winning historic preservationist and Portsmouth native, has spent more than thirty years researching and writing about northern New England’s Black history. A community activist, she is the founder of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, Inc. and directs the African American Resource Center.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. One of my kids read this last year in American Studies. He was impressed. The African Burial Grounds memorial in Portsmouth is something everyone should visit, as well as Prince Whipple's grave.

    1. Excellent. I found both the book and the site wonderful. Somehow history seemed so very close.