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First Blacks of Portsmouth, Part 1

SLAVE NAMES & FAMILY (continued)

The first record of a black family in Portsmouth appears in 1717 when Joseph and Nancy were baptized by the Rev. John Emerson of the South Church, along with their two children, Eleazor and James, all owned by William Cotton. Later that year Rev. Emerson also baptized Tony and his three children, Caesar, James and Sampson, slaves of Col. Hunkings. Although the black population grew over the next forty years with the increased importation of slaves into Portsmouth and baptisms of parents and children continued, no black marriages appear in the church records during the period.

Familiarity with slave naming practices is essential for tracing early black family relationships; yet, this too is a complicated task. Slaves did not have their own surnames and only occasionally was an African's first name retained. The common practice was for the owner to replace an African's name with one thought appropriate for a slave, then the master's family name was added as an informal method of identifying the slave with that owner. If sold, the slave became known by the new master's name. Therefore, without supporting evidence, historians can assume very little about kinship between slaves sharing the same family name. For example, two Sherburne slaves, Caesar and Nancy, are listed separately in the North Church records. They may have been married, siblings, or a parent and child-even cousins. But unless an additional reference establishes their kinship, all that can be said is that they had the same owner. Furthermore the issue is further clouded by the fact that two slaves may be related, yet contain different names because one took the surname of a new master Finally, most emancipated slaves who remained in Portsmouth appear to have retained the surname of the owner who granted freedom, or the one with whom the slave most closely identified. This appearance of passively accepting the white family's surname could be, instead, a deliberate choice of free people to preserve their identity with significant members of their own black family.

Much has been written about the breaking up of American slave families, yet many managed to stay intact. Whites did not recognize non-traditional marriages and, as a result, the union was not recorded. Without documentation of these unions, the total number of Portsmouth black families during the period remains unknown. The records do show, however, that between 1760 and 1810 about one hundred black couples chose to have their marriages performed by a Portsmouth minister, usually of the same church as an owner or former master, and the majority of these families remained in the town for many years after marriage.

African religious beliefs were ridiculed, if not ignored, by European - Americans who proceeded to "facilitate and encourage the conversion of Negroes" to Christianity. It is impossible to know the degree a slave's religious belief actually was changed or to what extent his or her declarations of faith were concessions to expediency. Regardless, Africans were expected to forsake their own understanding of God, the relationships between natural forces, and the life of the spirit for the religion of their oppressors. Civil and social laws were reinforced in Biblical lessons extolling obedience not only to masters but to white people generally. In return for their declarations of faith, slaves received the promise of freedom from "spiritual sinfulness" while spending their earthly days in legal bondage.

In adopting ceremonies of baptism and marriage that were acceptable in white society, some blacks seemed to be challenging whites to recognize the legitimacy of their families, thereby making it possible for blacks to be a part of the larger community . Most black people who continued to live in Portsmouth after emancipation had connections with a local church and ties to the white community. Some degree of emotional bonding would have been inevitable between masters and servants who had lived in the same house, shared the intimacies of family life, performed work together in kitchens and gardens, on the docks and in shops. If one or both partners in a black marriage had grown up in Portsmouth, they were likely to have had relatives and loved ones nearby, some possibly still in bondage, whom they would not want to abandon. Older people would have been reluctant to venture out into an unknown and a very dangerous land.

Copyright (c) Valerie Cunningham. All rights reserved. This essay appears exclusively on First posted 1997.

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