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Visible Black History


In the last half dozen years we’ve seen African American history literally written right before our eyes on the Internet. Unlike traditional textbook history, this material has often never been published in book form, yet thanks to the Web, is accessible to millions. It’s a phenomenal new approach to teaching history.


VISIT the Visible Black History web site

Next year the University Press of New England (UPNE) will publish work on Portsmouth black history collected over 30 years by historian Valerie Cunningham in cooperation with Mark Sammons. I’ve been proud to release some of that work online. Now a book of Maine black history is in the works, and readers can see it evolving online at Visible Black History.

What we’re learning goes way beyond political correctness. The great discovery is that blacks have been a vital part of New England culture for centuries. Kidnapped from their native nations, stripped of names, dignity, rights – early African Americans survived, thrived and built a rich local culture in the midst of a largely white society. These lives and this culture were almost entirely ignored as the initial texts of American history were written. When I was in school we learned about Frederick Douglas and George Washington Carver in small sidebars of weighty, dull schoolbooks. That was it. There were thousands of faceless slaves, and a handful of important black figures. Abraham Lincoln was the "Great Emancipator" and white, not black Abolitionists, grabbed the headlines. In Maine, where the "underground railroad " was the work of largely African American heroes, the dramatic truth was scarcely known. Finally, those stories are taking their place as part of the history of the nation -- and they are refreshing, revealing and enriching to the very core of the American culture.

We know that Portland, Maine had a significant population of African-Americans in the 18th and 19th century. Freed blacks often worked New England seaports. Some were ship captains, while other performed the hardest of jobs. Now we learn that the African American population was widespread in Maine. Between 1820 and 1870 black citizens lived in 174 Maine communities from Madawaska to Kittery, according to authors Harriet H. Price and Gerald E. Talbot.

Many black families in Maine lived in near isolation, cut off from others in a sea of white faces. In Maine the African American population in a town rarely rose above 3 %, but taken together their stories form a fascinating chorus. When this book is published, we’ll be able to read – in one volume – the collected history of, for example, "Negro Island" and the displacement of blacks on Malaga Island by the government. The web site promises tales about the black author of the first Afro-centric writing in America, the first black Catholic priest and bishop in the nation, the first African American lawyer, black abolitionists, black mariners, soldiers, authors, laborers – all from Maine.

Talbot and Price began work on their book in 1999 and launched the web site the following year. Both are active in Civil Rights and black heritage research. Talbot is a seventh-generation black Mainer. Writer and researcher Price, a white Vermonter, has also lived and worked in Maine for the last 33 years.


Right now Visible Black History includes three key essays and a phenomenal bibliography of sources on Maine and New England black heritage. That single resource page is worth its weight in gold.

What better way to kick off another Black History Month than with a new black history web site? Readers will find a detailed well written essay on the Rev. Amos Noah Freeman (1810 – 1893) Maine’s first recognized black community leader and a founder of the historic Abyssinnian Church being restored in Portland. Another article focuses on blacks in 19th century Maine, and a third on seafarers. It’s not a lot of content for a history web site, but this stuff is like pure uranium. It’s so rare and weighty, it practically glows.

"The main goal of the site," says web master Erik Ojakaar, "is to spark interest in Maine’s black history through interesting passages and stunning photographs, some of which have not been published before."

The other purpose of Visible Black History according to the webmaster is to entice others to do more genealogical research into Maine black history. The resource page is the starting point and the essays serve as samples.

"My focus in designing the site was first and foremost to make the content highly readable. Anything but high contrast black text on white background would not have been appropriate."

Author H.H. Price explains further:

"Since the book will not be published until 2004, we saw a need to put up a web site so people could access some of the information ASAP. We have tried to get out information out as soon as it is verified."

"Mr, Ojakaar is completely responsible for the special strategies and design techniques," Price says of the webmaster. "He donated his skills and time because he believes in what we are doing."


Getting black history online was one of the main reasons I built my own giant web site back in 1996 with the help of Tim Dubuque. Valerie Cunningha’s black history of Portsmouth, her 30-year labor of love, was so compelling that I simply wanted the world to see what she had done. Today, those original articles consistently rank within the Top Ten most visited pages of the 3,000 web pages currently online at my history portal. I knew people would be intrigued, but I never anticipated the hunger for stories about African-American heritage in New England.

That means coming up with new content year after year to please a growing audience worldwide. I’ve gotten letters about Portsmouth black history from as far away as Australia and Africa and the Middle East. The more we dig, the more incredible tales appear.

This week I was bowled over to discover that the first successful American magician was born to an African American woman in New Hampshire just after the American Revolution. Richard Potter (1763 – 1835) is credited with introducing hypnotism and ventriloquism to New England audiences. Harry Houdini, the most famous magician and escape artist in history, was fascinated by reports that Potter could climb through a log, stand on eggs without breaking them and climb a rope and disappear. Potter lived in Hopkington and built a home on 175 acres in Andover, NH and lived, according to one historian, for a time off State Street in Portsmouth.

It was a thrill to add Evelyn Gersen’s research about Ona Judge Staines to the Web and watch the world react. Staines was the body slave of Martha Washington who escaped from Mount Vernon to live out her life in Greenland, NH. Currently a local researcher is preparing heretofore unseen data on black "housewright" Hopestill Cheswell and his son who designed and constructed a great many early homes in the New Hampshire Seacoast as freed men.

Now we have Visible Black History, a place where the lives of a formerly invisible population reside. It’s a whole new side to "Yankee" New England. The more we hear these stories, the more the rest of American history makes sense. And soon we will have two very important new volumes – one on New Hampshire, one on Maine. These books were born in the hearts of dedicated researchers, baptized by fire on the Internet and will be published on paper in 2004. It only took three centuries for these stories to see print.

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Thursday, February 22, 2018 
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