As the nation’s first African American President takes the oath of office for a second term, following the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and roughly sixty years since Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to the New Hampshire residents in The Pearl, a former African-American church in downtown Portsmouth, the NH State Legislature is taking up a bill designed to free 20 African slaves who petitioned the state for their freedom in 1779.
The African Burying Ground Memorial Park planned for a recently re-discovered historic burial ground beneath the streets of Portsmouth will one day “Stand in Honor of Those Forgotten,” as well. Fund-raising has reached the half-way point for the Memorial and a one-man performance of "The Fula From America" by Carlyle Brown at The Music Hall on February 20th, including a Candlelight Procession to the burying ground site will help.
The petition to the New Hampshire Legislature is part of the collection at the New Hampshire Archives in Concord. Signed by 20 slaves in prominent Portsmouth households, the petition includes Prince Whipple, a member of William Whipple’s household staff, freed by his master when he fought alongside in the American Revolution. (Tradition says the black man in the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware is Prince Whipple.) When presented, the petition was tabled by the legislature. Local Seacoast NH Senator Martha Fuller Clark decided it was time to file a bill to take up the petition once more and answer its request, not only for justice but as another way to acknowledge the rich history documented in Portsmouth’s Black Heritage Trail and other sites around the state.
Many prominent historic sites that are members of the Portsmouth Historic Houses Association figure on the Black Heritage Trail in addition to the African Burying Ground. . Four locations at Strawbery Banke Museum, the 10-acre living history museum recognize the African-American workforce. The Trail notes Prince Whipple at the Moffatt-Ladd House & Garden that was owned by William Whipple. The Governor Langdon House on Pleasant Street, now owned by Historic New England acknowledges the figure of Cyrus Bruce, emancipated by Langdon and known for the elegance of his livery when he was a paid butler in the household of a man who would become the first Governor of the State of New Hampshire, following the Revolution. The colonial owner of the Warner House owned eight slaves, two of whom, Peter and Cato, signed the petition.
The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail was created by Valerie Cunningham recipient of New Hampshire’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award and the University of New Hampshire President's Award of Excellence. Although the houses are closed in the winter, a self-guided tour of the Trail is a fine way to spend a February afternoon