Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has really taken my breath away - like discovering a treasure chest containing magnificent jewels. Everywhere you turn, there are interesting structures, markers, and sights - and insights, as well, uncovering information and perspective I hadn't had before. that is my experience happening upon the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.
Strolling about, I come upon the Moffatt-Ladd House, where there is a historic marker that tells the story of Prince, enslaved by General William Whipple and his wife Katharine Moffatt, who "accompanied the General in Philadelphia when he signed the Declaration of Independence and through several battles of Revolution but was not freed until 1784. In 1779, Prince and Winson, two of 20 African-born men in Portsmouth, signed an elegantly worded petition asking the New Hampshire Legislature to abolish slavery. Lawmakers tabled it, but the local newspapers printed the text in July 15, 1780 issue, 'for amusement of readers.' Prince was not freed until 1784."
The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, with its frank stories and anecdotes is eye-opening especially to Northerners who erroneously believe that slavery was confined to the South, and that after slavery was abolished, the North was some bastion of opportunity. Here it is plain that was not the case. The North may have had its abolitionists and its Underground Railroad, but most were complicit in this heinous system.
This is made clear from a marker to Black Mariners: "Enslaved and free Black men in Portsmouth were seafarers from the mid 1700s through 1865 In the early 1800s seafaring was one of the few occupations open here to free Blacks, who sought economic equality as mariners despite the hardships of life at sea Ashore, Blacks worked as truckmen and stevedores along this dock area.
"By the close of the Civil War, changing hiring practices excluded Blacks from ships crews At sea they were limited to service as cooks and stewards, even in the US Navy, until after World War II."
I come upon a marker for Newport, Violet & Jacob Freeman: "In 1778 Rev Ezra Stiles manumitted Newport, 29 years old, who had been brought from Rhode Island by his owner After manumission, Newport adopted the surname Freeman and married Violet Dearborn who had recently purchased her freedom."
Portsmouth, New Hampshire has been home to Africans and African-Americans for more than 350 years - that is just about going back to the beginning of European settlement here.
"The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail takes the reader to a selection of sites where Portsmouth’s black residents lived, worked, prayed and celebrated. It tells stories omitted from three centuries of white historical narrative.
"Upon examination we find that against the odds of early enslavement and subsequent marginalization, Africans and their descendants built communities and families, founded institutions, and served their town, state and nation in many capacities.
The Black Heritage Trail compasses several structures within Strawbery Banke, the living history museum created out of an actual neighborhood (known as Puddle Dock) that has stood in this same location for more than 300 years. I spend hours at Strawbery Banke, and return the next day to take advantage of the free second-day admission, and to find myself falling into this sense of time travel, as you go from house to house, era by era (see story).
One of these is the William Pitt Tavern, and I find out that the tavern owner, John Stavers, had an infamous connection to Portsmouth's slave history: "In the midst of the American Revolution, in 1777, James, enslaved by tavern owner John Stavers, was ordered to stop a zealous patriot form chopping down the tavern sign. Although James nearly killed the man, it was his owner, a suspected Tory, who was arrested James had no accountability in the eyes of the law because he was a slave."
There is more to the story at the website for the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail: "Enslaved people were a recurrent part of tavern-owner John Stavers' life. In earlier years Stavers was charged with beating someone else's black servant. He also auctioned people imported from the West Indies, advertised for his run-away 16-year-old slave named Fortune, and charged a fee to view a 9-year-old albino African boy.
The day before, I had gotten into a "discussion" with the reenactor who takes on the role of John Stavers, Jr., who tells me about the incident with the tavern sign being cut down, how his father went to jail for a week and how they changed the name of the tavern to the William Pitt Tavern, in order to appease the Patriots.
But the Black Heritage Trail gives a different perspective on the affair: "On Wednesday, January 29, 1777, Mark Noble, suspicious of John Stavers' patriotism, began chopping down the tavern sign, Stavers sent James, his enslaved man, out to stop him. James knocked Noble unconscious. Stavers was arrested and tried for suspected disloyalty. James was reportedly found hiding in cistern in the basement, afraid of retribution. James was neither arrested nor charged with assault. Later, when two neighboring women forced James to steal food from the tavern for them, they not James, were charged with theft. Unlike in West African law, which was founded in family and community obligation, James was invisible in American law; his status, identity, and actions were absorbed into his master's."
I also look at the Sherburne House, which is remarkable for being one of the few examples of early colonial architecture still standing, from a different perspective: "The white Sherburnes built this steep roofed house in two phases c. 1695 and c. 1702, when this neighborhood was new. Its owner, Joseph, was a mariner, merchant and farmer. He lived here with his family and two slaves who are listed in a 1744 estate inventory as "one Negro man [pounds] 200, one ditto woman [pounds] 50." The man probably worked for Joseph at sea, on the dock, in his store, and on Joseph's outlying farmland. The woman probably worked for Joseph's wife Mary at food preparation, cleaning, textile production, and gardening. White Yankees typically assigned their enslaved people to sleeping space in attics, cellars, and back ells. The black Sherburnes probably slept in the attic of this cellar-less house."
After leaving Strawbery Banke, I walk up Penfield to Market Street and the most imposing North Church which commands this central intersection. Here, there is another Black Heritage Trail marker: "Negro Pews: Until the mid 1800s, most New England churches assigned pews to parishioners by their social rank Black people, enslaved or free, usually were seated as far as possible from the pulpit. Negro pews in the North Meetinghouse, which stood here from 1711 to 1854, were located in the upper balcony high above the front door."
The website gives more detail: "In the colonial era some white people objected to the Christianization of enslaved Africans and didn't take their slaves to church. Pious whites catechized their enslaved people and took them to church. Many slaves later became active church members. Isolated n balcony "Negro Pews" in most churches, some were bored by didactic sermons and played quiet games or smacked. North Church appointed Overseers of the Negro Pews to minimize such activity. Many others adapted and became church members. Blacks associated with North Church include: Frank and Flora Stoodley; Prince and Dinah Chase Whipple [who we have learned more about]; Peter Warner and Dinah Pern, who were married by the North Church minister; and many others."
"Black culture informed and transformed American Popular culture. The black presence made other Americans describe themselves as white. The black civil rights movement remains a model for other marginalized Americans and an inspiration to the world. In brief, black history is American history-black history is everyone’s history," the Black Heritage Trail website notes.
The trail continues to be improved - especially as Portsmouth is undergoing revitalization. In 2003, street excavations uncovered a graveyard containing the remains of an estimated 200 Africans, some once enslaved, some free, according to Stephanie Seacord. A marker for "Negro Burying Ground" will pay tribute to a new African Burying Ground Memorial Park. "Part of the memorial will be words from the petition filed in 1779 by 20 African slaves in Portsmouth, from the households of notable NH patriots, asking for their freedom. 14 who died enslaved were free by act of the NH Legislature in 2013."
(See also Barbara Radcliffe Rogers' excellent article Walking the Black Heritage Trail in Portsmouth, New Hampshire).
For more information, see Portsmouth Black History Trail, pbhtrail.org/web/walking-tour.
For more information about visiting Portsmouth: 603-431-1925, www.PortsmouthNH.com.
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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