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In Search of Black Yankee 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.


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Saturday, December 16, 2017 
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