Black Heroes and Heroines of Portsmouth
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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.




Hopestill Cheswell
The Purcell House (1758) on State Street, now the John Paul Jones House Museum, was reportedly designed and built by "housewright" Hopestill Cheswell. Described as "mulatto" or biracial, Cheswell offers an example of a free black who enjoyed great success in the colonial era. Cheswell owned land and a sawmill in Durham. His son Wentworth Cheswell attended Dummer Academy, served in the American Revolution, and was a longtime town official in Newmarket where he is buried. Wentworth's grave site was recently restored and an historic marker erected in his honor.

Richard Potter
He has been called America's first successful stage magician, hypnotist, and ventriloquist. Legend says Richard Potter was able to crawl through a hollow log, walk on flames, dance on unbroken eggs, then climb a rope surrounded by spectators and disappear. Some say Potter was the son of an English baronet and an African American serving woman or slave. He grew up in Hopkington, NH, but frequently traveled through Portsmouth. Charles Brewster, in his history of Portsmouth, refers to Potter as living on what is now State Street where he may have kept a room.

Petitioners for Freedom
Three years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, 20 enslaved men from Portsmouth petitioned the New Hampshire Assembly for their freedom. The document simply requested the signers, born as free men in Africa, be granted the same rights that the Declaration offered all white men. The black signers were at the time legally considered as property by prominent Portsmouth families -- Gardner, Warner, Whipple, Brewster, Gerrish, Moffat, Odiorne, and others. The state took no action on the petition.

Ona Marie Judge
Martha Washington's escaped "body slave" has become a celebrity in recent years, though she scorned attention in her own life. Ona (or Oney) managed to elude the most famous slave-owners in the United States (while the Washingtons lived in Philadelphia). Ona took up residence in nearby Greenland. George Washington's attempts to entice and kidnap Ona back to Mount Vernon failed when locals refused to cooperate. Ona's story is now told in numerous books, by historical re-enactors, and on her own Wikipedia page.

nh black history cards

Esther Mullinaux
Few images or artifacts survive from early days of Portsmouth's black history. One rare treasure is a photograph of laundress Esther Mullinaux. It shows a prim bespectacled black woman in a shawl, flowing dress, and white cap  Esther was the daughter of Prince and Dinah Whipple, a mother, and a member of the North Church. Esther died in 1868 and is buried near her famous father in North Cemetery.

Albert Johnston, Jr.
When Albert Johnston Jr. of Keene, NH was 16 his parents told him he was black. His light skinned parents of African ancestry had been "passing" as white. In 1947, while majoring in music at the University of New Hampshire, Albert told his story to film producer Louis de Rochemont of Newington. Within a year Albert's story was seen by millions in the pages of Reader's Digest and in a book called Lost Boundaries. De Rochemont quickly adapted the story into one of the first "race films" in America. The film premiered at the Colonial Theater in Market Square and featured footage of St. John's Church with many locals playing extras.  Johnson lives in Hawaii today.

Barney Hill 
Best known with his wife Betty for their close encounter with a flying saucer in 1961, Barney Hill was best known in Portsmouth as a Civil Rights activist.  Cases of discrimination were being investigated in local supermarkets, barbershops, real estate agencies and restaurants. Pease Air Force Base was offering a different list of off-base housing to blacks than the one given to whites. Barney Hill died suddenly in 1969, four years after the publication of a bestselling book about the Hills alleged UFO abduction. In the 1975 film version, Barney was played by esteemed actor James Earl Jones.

Emerson & Jane Reed 
Racial discrimination was still common in Portsmouth even after passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. To test the new legislation, Emerson and Jane Reed attempted to dine at Wentworth by the Sea Hotel on July 4, 1964. They were refused admission because hotel owner James Barker Smith did not seat blacks in his restaurant. The Reeds and the Potters, a white couple from Durham, held a lengthy showdown with the hotel owner. Not wanting to be cited for breaking the new law, Smith eventually seated both couples in the dining room and the hotel was, at last, integrated.

Elizabeth Ann Virgil
Elizabeth Ann Virgil graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1926 and was the first African American graduate of the University of New Hampshire. Despite her degree, she was unable to find a job in the "segregated" North and became a teacher in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. She eventually returned to Portsmouth where – although still barred from teaching white children – she found work at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and as a secretary at UNH. Her collection of family photographs of African Americans is currently archived at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. They depict a world that  96 percent of New Hampshire’s population has rarely witnessed  -- a world of black Yankees that is as old as America itself.

KEY SOURCE: If you cannot find the book BLACK PORTSMOUTH in your local bookstore, signed copies are still available from the author. Get your check ready for $25 (includes postage), send us an email, and we'll tell you where to order a copy. Or contact Discover Portsmouth at 603-436-8433.


Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on and in local stores