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In Search of Black Yankee Imagery

 

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 SeacoastNH.com 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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