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Understanding the Portsmouth African Burying Ground




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Getting the message right

Already visitors are finding their way to the new African Burying Ground memorial park on Chestnut Street. But will we get the story right? What visitors find there is not always easy to process. It is a unique, flowing space of stone and sculpture. But exactly what happened here is not immediately apparent. The interpretive signs are brief, poignant, and polite. There are currently no artifacts of the city's black history on display, no dedicated exhibit, no video to fill in the blanks.

"The fallout, as I see it," Valerie says, "is that everybody who thinks they know a little about it is going to write their version of it. The mythology is just going to be multiplied, intensified, glorified, and distorted the way history is, especially black history."

As residents of Portsmouth and the Seacoast, we are all becoming stewards of local black history. And it becomes our job, as best we can, to learn to teach visitors the unvarnished history of the region. Here are three things we should always remember about the African Burying Ground:

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1: We knew it was there.

The "discovery" of the burials in 2003 was no real surprise to historians. In fact, plaque #10 on the self-guided black heritage walking tour had been on view at the corner of State and Chestnut streets for years. The location of a "Negro Burying Ground" had been proposed, some historians believe, in 1705. or perhaps it was already in use in the 17th century. It was designated on a speculative map in the mid-1800s. Reports of human remains found in the vicinity during building construction were a matter of public record in the early 1800s. With Valerie's permission, I had posted her research on my website as early as 1997, six years before the "discovery" of the burials.     

2: Don't call it a slave cemetery

The truth is, we have no evidence yet that the people buried under the street were slaves. It is fair to assume that some were. Others may have been freed Africans. Others might be impoverished whites carried to the city's potter's field from the nearby almshouse or from Prison Lane, now Porter Street, the alley that runs along the Music Hall. The walking tour brochure refers to them as "the un-named, unrecorded dead." To refer to the site as Portsmouth's "slave cemetery," as tempting as this may be for tourism, is to brand and diminish its occupants.

We don't routinely refer to the Whipple, Langdon, Wentworth, Moffatt, Warner, Stoodley, Stavers, Sherburne, Brewster and other white families as "slave owners." Yet they and many others were. What we do know is that the remains of those who were exhumed and returned to the earth were of African origin.

"If we think that the only thing that a black person could be was a slave, then we can call it a slave cemetery," Valerie adds.

3: We don't know how big the cemetery is

The African Burying Ground park, if I may be allowed this metaphor, is only the tip of the iceberg. The nine coffins ceremoniously placed under the circular burial vault lid represent only five percent of 200 bodies that may still lie in an undetermined  area nearby. The graveyard may never have been clearly defined. Five other visible coffins, ones not immediately threatened by the city water and sewer lines, were left intact. We cannot know how many burials were moved, found but unreported, or destroyed by expanding progress in the 19th and 20th centuries. Early newspaper accounts suggest human remains were discovered as far as a block away on Rogers Street toward the Middle School. And it is not unlikely that future redevelopment of the "Old Town by the Sea" will uncover more human remains in the heart of the city. Then what?

CONTINUE African Burying Ground 

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