How the Friends Saved the Pearl
  • Print
Written by Freinds of the Pearl


It took an extraordinary collaboration to save The Pearl of Portsmouth. National, local, nonprofit, volunteer, religious, historical, educational and commercial partners all worked together. This, in brief is how the Friends of Pearl preserved an African American treasure.




READ: Portsmouth's First Black Congregation 
MUCH MORE Black History 

Preserving NH’s Only Historic Black Church Building

Capsule History

pearlpic01b.jpgThe Pearl of Portsmouth is the only historic African-American church structure in the state of New Hampshire. Built in 1868 as a Freewill Baptists Church, it was sold to the People's Baptist Church in 1915 and served the seacoast African-American community until the 1970s.

Why the Pearl Matters

The Pearl was the only Black-owned church in the state and one of only two Black churches in northern New England until the mid-twentieth century. It is remembered by one long-time member as, "the center of Black society in Portsmouth," and is emblematic of accomplishments and struggles of African-Americans in northern New England.

For more than seventy years, the Pearl Street Church served many African American charitable, social and political activities until the building was sold in 1984. It was here that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in 1952, while still a divinity student at Boston University. The local chapter of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) received its charter here in 1958.

CONTINUE Pearl Renovation


Saving the Pearl

Remodeled in 1984 for a restaurant that later closed, the building was subsequently purchased by Margaret Britton, spiritual advisor to the Unity congregation. She operated the former sanctuary as a function hall for a wide range of weddings, community forums and nonprofit meetings.

The Friends of The Pearl began as a volunteer committee concerned with the long-term future of the Pearl Street Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the first Black-owned church in the state. The ad hoc group evolved into the project fundraising committee of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, Inc.

In 2001 the Portsmouth Advocates helped by winning a Preservation Services Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to assess the physical damage from delayed maintenance. Timber framing specialist Arron Sturgis evaluated the building's preservation needs and ranked the costs of the renovations.

Using his condition report, The Friends of The Pearl proposed a three-plan to rescue Pearl Street Church from its most serious long-term deterioration. The plans also offered a unique solution -- to preserve the privately owned building and protect public access to its historic interior, while allowing continued commercial use.

In 2002 the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail spearheaded the restoration of the Pearl Street Church with the support of Boston University's nationally recognized Preservation Studies Program, directed by Prof. Richard Candee. Graduate students prepared the National Register nomination, researched local funding opportunities and advocated Block Grant funds for handicapped access, written grant proposals to state and national agencies, and exploring bank financing and income opportunities. That same year the Greater Piscataqua Foundation funded a capacity-building grant for fundraising and outreach.




New Hampshire's Landmark and Cultural Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) offered the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail a $164,000 matching grant to begin exterior restoration of the Pearl Street Church and to maintain what remains of its historical appearance.

The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) is represented on the Friends of The Pearl Board and offered the Rundlet-May House, its 1807 museum property in Portsmouth's historic district, as the site for the restoration of the Pearl's belfry. This restoration, completed by contractor Aaron Sturgis of Preservation Timber Framing, Inc., took place between May and mid-September 2003. This offered many opportunities educate visitors on the restoration of this particular site, and on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail in general.

This project not only rebuilt the decayed belfry and improved the building's exterior, but donated a permanent preservation easement, to the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, the leading statewide nonprofit preservation organization.

The Pearl Today

The building was purchased in 2005 by Gary and Cindy Dodds. After adding a mezzanine and completing the renovations, the building is now being rented as a function hall for weddings, receptions, and business meetings.

This building remains a vital piece of Portsmouth's larger social fabric. Now a site on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, it is listed on the New Hampshire State Register and is pending listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Its preservation sends a message locally and nationally that New England recognizes the significance of African-Americans continuing contributions to the region's history and growth.

CLICK HERE to visit the official Pearl web site


This article originally posted on the Friends of the Pearl web site. Transfered to by request in 2008. (c) PBHT and