Understanding the Portsmouth African Burying Ground
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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Like many of you, I was there when Portsmouth city workers uncovered the ancient coffins in the fall of 2003. We stood at the corner of Chestnut and Court streets, peering down past a thin crust of asphalt into the earthen world below. (Click title to read more)
Later, archaeologists in faded blue jeans and colorful hardhats placed their bare hands against the rotted wooden caskets and hoisted them into the world of the living.
In an era before Facebook, smartphpmes, and Twitter, I rushed to post the story on my website. Could this be the legendary Negro Burying Ground, hidden three centuries beneath the pavement, sliced apart by houses, and run through with sewer pipes? DNA evidence soon proved that the dead were indeed of African heritage.
We knew this was an historic moment. In a city that touted its well-preserved cemeteries, Portsmouth had conveniently misplaced, and then repurposed, the only graveyard dedicated to black residents. Africans -- some undoubtedly kidnapped, sold, renamed, impoverished, and marginalized-- had been nearly written out of the Portsmouth story.
"The Burying Ground story is complex," historian Valerie Cunningham told me this week. "It is not an easy story to deal with, not easy to talk about. Most people don't want to deal with the real story."
Let the learning begin
Indeed, the concept of Yankee slavery and northern racism and discrimination can be a tough pill for some to swallow. New Englanders traditionally point to famous white abolitionists, to the underground railroad, or to our opposition to slavery in the Civil War as a badge of regional superiority. A friend told me just the other day slavery in the North was "better" than slavery in the South.
"I think you are mistaken," an out-of-state college professor told me not 20 years ago. We were leaning against the metal fence at Prescott Park watching the river rush toward the Atlantic Ocean. "I doubt there was any slavery going on in colonial Portsmouth," he said."
But I knew better. I had been privileged to read an early draft of what would become the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail by Valerie Cunningham. Like so many seaports, north and south, Portsmouth had been deeply involved in the slave trade almost from its inception in the early 1600s. Freed and enslaved Africans were key to the city's 18th century maritime economy. Prominent local merchants, even Christian ministers, were slave owners. In the 19th century, fast Portsmouth-built ships were used in the elicit slave trade and the northern textile economy was tightly tied to southern cotton plantations.
Valerie's pioneering study changed Portsmouth history forever. Her work continues to shine a light on the forgotten, we can even say "whitewashed," local history. Her book Black Portsmouth revolutionized the story of New Hampshire's only seaport, and has drawn tourists, scholars, and the merely curious to the city ever since. And every day her research guides me toward a more honest, critical, diverse history of this predominantly white New England city.
CONTINUE African Burying Ground
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