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In Search of Black Yankee Imagery

Elizabeth Virgil CollecitonHISTORY MATTERS

Revisionist history has proven that Black Yankees have lived in New England for ove three centuries. In NH’s only seaport, we now know their stories, but we have never seen their faces. The search for pictures of African Americans in early Portsmouth teaches us just how much blacks were marginalized in the North as well as in the South. (Read the article and see pictures)



VISIT OUR Black HIstory Section 

This city has never been the same since historian Valerie Cunningham and friends turned 30 years of research into the highly visible Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. Two dozen bold, brass markers placed strategically around the city remind visitors and locals that African Americans have been here almost as long as whites. Documented tales of enslaved blacks in Portsmouth homes put the lie to the Yankee myth that slavery was absent or somehow "better" in the North than down South. We now know that local white merchants bought and sold African adults and children, built fast ships that transported slaves, and made their fortunes in the infamous "Triangle Trade".

Valerie Cunningham /

We now know a little about the lives of black Portsmouth individuals, both freed and enslaved. We have come to know Prince and Cuffee Whipple, Primus Fowle, Flora Stoodley, James Stavers. Cato and Peter Warner, Ona Judge Staines. But we will never see them. Unlike the grand portraits that still decorate the walls of Portsmouth’s historic mansions, no paintings of local African American survive. One Concord, NH family portrait (painted around 1830) shows an enslaved girl named Sarah all but invisible in the background holding the child of a wealthy white couple. It appears on the cover of the groundbreaking book Black Portsmouth by Cunningham and co-author Mark Sammons.

CONTINUE Black Imagery


The invisible people

If you want to make someone anonymous, take away his name and never take his picture. The same tactic works with an entire race. To visualize the black population of Portsmouth from the Revolution to the Civil War, we must rely on our imaginations, or on rare illustrations from other regions. Portsmouth newspapers did occasionally print stock engravings of runaway slaves, often running and carrying a hobo-style bundle on a stick. Classified ads offer "a likely Negro girl" for sale along with a yoke of oxen, sheep, horses and clothing.

One unique exception is an illustration of Thomas Paul, originally from Exeter, who led worship meetings for blacks at Faneuil Hall. Paul formed the First African Baptist Church in Boston in 1805. Cunningham was thrilled to discover a very early photograph of Esther Whipple Mullinaux, the daughter of Prince and Dinah Whipple who were enslaved by William Whipple, a Portsmouth signer of the Declaration of Independence. The picture came from the North Church via the Portsmouth Athenaeum and shows Ester in glasses, bonnet and a fashionable plaid outfit and shawl. She died in 1868 and is buried near her parents in the Old North Cemetery. Lacking authentic images of people and even tombstones, the story of Portsmouth’s black history is often illustrated with photographs of historic houses, ships, street corners. These architectural pictures do nothing to conjure up the invisible people.

18th Century NH Gazette Ad /

"Think about Washington, DC right now," Cunningham says, speaking of the power of visual imagery. "Anyone who knows Washington by watching TV would never guess that it’s actually 70% black."

But the rise of high speed printing and photography in many ways made the situation worse. It was the era after the Civil War, from Reconstruction until the 1930s that was "a horrible time" for blacks and for poor whites, Cunningham says, due to the incredible backlash of bigotry following the emancipation of slaves. African Americans, when depicted at all, were marginalized, lampooned in minstrel shows, and caricatured in magazines, music, radio, theatrical productions and film. Those cultural stereotypes persist and form the core of social racism today.

Late 19th century photographs of Portsmouth occasionally show a black figure pushed far to the side of a group portrait or school photograph. In an early 20th century photo of downtown Portsmouth, William E. Allen smiles broadly while polishing the shoes of a white customer in a panama hat. Another 1920s image from the Strawbery Banke Museum collection shows local Ku Klux Klan members parading openly down Congress Street. Another modern photograph is hauntingly reminiscent of the colonial painting on the cover of Black Portsmouth. The camera focuses on a white baby in its carriage on a Portsmouth sidewalk. But on closer examination we can see the child’s black nanny huddled against a building in the distance almost out of frame.



Separate but unequal

There are many 20th century candid photographs of local black families doing everyday things – picnicking, driving cars, attending church, getting married, riding bikes, sitting on the beach. But unless you are a member of a black family leafing through a scrapbook, you might never see them, even with the influx of African Americans who arrived with the opening of Pease Air Force Base in the 1950s. Unspoken discriminatory social practices often kept blacks out of upscale Portsmouth restaurants, nightspots, white neighborhoods, hotels, and barber shops well into the mid-1960s when active Civil Rights advocates and the local NAACP finally began to break down the Yankee color barrier.

Cunningham points to the primarily-black summer inn at Kittery, Maine known affectionately as Rock Rest. It was run by Clayton and Hazel Sinclair from 1948 to 1976. Cunningham and members of the PBHT were able to gather documents, photographs and artifacts from Rock Rest that are now archived in the Special Collections Library at the University of New Hampshire.

Cunningham’s work has inspired others to begin filling in the blanks of Portsmouth black history. When an antiques dealer somehow obtained the family scrapbook of a local African American woman named Elizabeth Virgil, the Portsmouth Athenaeum jumped at the chance to add it to their document collection.

Black workers at Langdon Farm in Portsmouth, NH ? POrtsmouth Athenaeum

A membership library begun in 1817 by all-white proprietors, the Athenaeum decided in 1986 to begin collecting, not just books, but thousands of documents and photographs and to make those materials accessible to the public. Cunningham’s research opened a new direction that resonates with the changing interests of an increasingly multicultural America. Today scholars and general viewers are hungry for information about the "alternative" history of ethnic and religious groups, women, children, immigrants and other marginalize people. The traditional "white men at war only" depiction of United States history has taken a giant step backwards.

"We’re interested in the whole history of Portsmouth," says Athenaeum "Keeper" Tom Hardiman. "When it comes to black history, in all cases, Valerie is the prime mover in everything."

Elizabeth Ann Virgil (1903-1991) 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.

"I tell this story over and over again to my audiences," Cunningham says. "People in the North never think about the fact that black people left here to go to the segregated South. But if you wanted to work after you have educated yourself, that’s what you did."

Most of the people in the Virgil collection are unidentified and most may not be in Portsmouth, but this remains the life record of a local African American, and the progression of pictures tells her story. There are photos of young Elizabeth Virgil embracing a close friend. A couple of lovers spoon by the seashore. A shy little girl holds an African American doll. A baby taking her first steps stumbles toward the camera.

This is just life, nothing special, and these are just family pictures. And yet this is a world, frequently segregated, that 96 percent of New Hampshire’s population has never witnessed. It is the world of black Yankees, and it is as old as America itself.  

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is owner of the history Web site and his column appears here every other Monday. His latest history book for children is Striking Back: The Fight to End Child Labor Exploitation.

Elizabeth Ann Virgil with unidentifed child / Portsmouth Athenaeum






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