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Black Heroes and Heroines of Portsmouth

Elizabeth Ann VirgilHISTORY MATTERS

As anyone who walks the streets of Portsmouth knows, this city has a rich and fascinating African American history. Over two dozen brass plaques tell us so. But don't go looking for much more detail in the three standard city histories. Until recently, like the graves in the African Burying Ground, our black history was buried, lost or forgotten. (Continued below)

 

Nathaniel Adams, author of the 1825 Annals of Portsmouth used the word "negro" only twice and variations of the word "slave" just five times while covering two centuries of local history. He regretted that Declaration of Independence signer William Whipple participated in the slave trade, "the practice which too generally prevailed in those days." But when speaking of the "horrors of slavery," Adams was referring, less to the bondage of Africans, than to the treatment of white American colonists by the British prior to the Revolution.

Charles W. Brewster summed up the city's racial history in a newspaper article on "Slaves in Portsmouth," later reprinted in his two-volume Rambles About Portsmouth in the mid 1800s. With great interest Brewster recounted tales of "negroes of distinction," though he was inevitably drawn to those blacks who were "honest and devoted" servants to their masters. Ray Brighton's nearly 800-page They Came to Fish borrows a few black history anecdotes from Brewster, but adds nothing significant to the struggle for Civil Rights and black history. First published in 1973 and reprinted as late as 1994, Brighton's history predates the revolutionary research on African Americans that has appeared in recent years.

Which is why every family library in town should include a copy of Black Portsmouth (2004) by Valerie Cunningham and Mark Sammons. Cunningham's three decades of research into black characters and events has literally rewritten the city's history, adding color and a fresh new perspective on the evolution of the Port City.

Valerie Cunningham Signing by J Dennis Robinson

This being Black History Month, here are just a few of the local African American figures worth remembering. Some of these people are also featured along the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.

The Man from Guinea
This unknown African man symbolizes the fact that the history of race in Portsmouth is almost as old as the city itself. In 1645 a slave trader named Captain William Smith sold a man from Guinea to a "Mr. Williams of Piscataquack." A number of the wealthy merchant families here either profited from the slave trade or kept enslaved servants.

The Woman in the Fire
Portsmouth history dutifully records the death of Elizabeth Elatson or Portsmouth buried at Point of Graves, the city's oldest cemetery near Puddledock. In 1704 she survived the first house fire ever reported in an American newspaper. Elizabeth saved her grandson by throwing him out the window to his father, but she died of her injuries two weeks later. A report of the fire states only that "a negro woman servant" also perished in the blaze. The next year in 1705 the city authorized a separate burying place for Africans on the far side of town. As many as 200 anonymous black and impoverished whites may be buried there still -- under the pavement at the corner of Court and Chestnut streets. The recently rediscovered "African Burying Ground" will someday become the sacred site of a new memorial.

Prince and Cuff Whipple

They were originally from a wealthy royal family in Amabou on the Gold Coast of West Africa, but their lives took a terrible turn. En route to be educated in America, the two boys were sold into slavery by a ship captain. Renamed Prince and Cuff (or Kuff or Cuffie) they wound up in Portsmouth. Prince served in the American Revolution as servant to William Whipple and is buried in North Cemetery. Cuff was a noted local musician. Both were ultimately freed, married, and lived in a house now in the hotel district on High Street.

CONTINUE BLACK HISTORY LEGENDS

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Thursday, June 22, 2017 
 
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