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First Blacks of Portsmouth, Part 2


THE NEGRO COURT (Continued)

Whatever problems they may have faced, Portsmouth blacks were able to participate in political and community-wide events. The Negro Court provides ample evidence of political activity among Portsmouth's black community. Much is unclear about this institution, but based on the available information, this "court", in existence during the latter half of the 18th century, seems comparable to others located in black communities elsewhere. These courts -- sometimes called "slave courts"- were based on African and European traditions, blended in a governing body which set the standards of behavior among its black constituency. Officers were elected annually by their peers. Apparently, officers consisted of men who not only were respected for the conduct of their own lives, but who also could be trusted to negotiate with white community leaders?

A newspaper obituary for "King" Nero Brewster, slave of Col. William Brewster, described him as: A Monarch, who while living, was held in reverential esteem by his subjects -- consequently, his death is greatly lamented.

Too little is known about the actual jurisdiction of the Court in Portsmouth but it appears that the body tried and punished blacks who committed minor offenses; one man who was tried for theft was prosecuted by the county court when he repeated the crime. Those who sat on the Negro Court were elected, by their peers, and election day for the Court was a particularly festive occasion. Servants, excused from work, dressed in their finest clothing and gathered at Portsmouth Plains to celebrate and vote. A regular convening of the Court was an occasion for exchanging news about friends and loved ones who lived outside the town; blacks also discussed the activities of white families with whom they had close contact. This kind of communication network was essential in slave societies for relaying vital information about their safety individually and as a community.

The known leaders of the Negro Court in Portsmouth were among nineteen slaves who submitted a petition to the state legislature in 1779 urging the release of all New Hampshire slaves from bondage and to officially end slavery in the state. They appealed to the lawmakers' religious, moral and political sense of justice, but no legislative action was taken on the petition. It was tabled, and the entire petition appeared in the newspaper with an editorial disclaimer noting that its publication was "for the amusement" of the newspaper's readers. While some whites may have been entertained by the idea of slaves attempting to take control of their own lives, others must have sensed that blacks in Portsmouth could not be enslaved much longer.

Continue FIRST BLACKS

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