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First Blacks of Portsmouth, Part 2


The mere existence of The Ladies Charitable African Society implies the presence of knowledgeable leaders who were committed to improving the condition of blacks as slavery was ending. The name is a conscious identification with similarly named groups formed in other northern black communities during the period. The name of this organization is suggestive because these women were clearly engaging in an ethic of giving-similar to white charitable societies-while simultaneously practicing the centuries-old tradition of communal responsibility known in African cultures. The social work performed by these women, black and white, was of vital importance to the well-being of the community.

Yet, black associations boasted a unique vision. A common notion held by most African-American service organizations was that local action on behalf of the individual ultimately strengthened all black people. This "universalist" view was consistent with African tradition and with the black American experience of constant struggle for small victories in a pervasively racist society.

Many organizations catered to the special needs of free blacks, particularly those just emerging from slavery. In addition to classroom instruction, the Ladies Charitable African Society would have provided legal advice, employment references and opportunities for political networking through an exchange of information from all available sources. Because of the circumstances of slavery, black men were more tolerant of women activists than was generally true of the society at large. Although wives and daughters were customarily perceived as subordinate to men, women and men often worked as partners in meeting the needs of their particular communities. Experiences gained as participants in Portsmouth's Negro Court was undoubtedly valuable preparation for eventual freedom and self-government.

On the surface, slavery in New Hampshire may appear milder when held up to the horrors of slavery in the Caribbean or deep South. Yet, bondage in Portsmouth was just as painful as bondage elsewhere. It is difficult to articulate the personal isolation which must have been experienced by the slave immigrants introduced suddenly, involuntarily and violently into a culturally alien world. Not only did blacks arrive on unknown shores speaking languages that were unfamiliar perhaps even to other Africans, but they came from different experiences in slavery, from various parts of Africa, the Caribbean and the American South. Slave women and men tried to preserve their dignity while accommodating the whims of self-appointed masters. They were multilingual, adding English to the African languages they brought with them; they ate strange foods and performed unfamiliar work; finally, they learned the social practices of this bizarre new world.

The intellectual and spiritual integrity of centuries-old African civilizations was degraded and displaced in the traumatic process of enslavement. Africans became "American" in order to survive. The first blacks of Portsmouth are models of their persistence.

Editor's Note: Valerie Cunningham has been researching, writing and teaching about local black history for 25 years. Her avocation has made her one of the region's experts and she is consultant to the Black History section of This article, complete with detailed footnotes, first appeared in Historical New Hampshire (Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 1989) published by the NH Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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

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