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Unknown NH Slave Tales Thrive Online

Valerie's tales of Portsmouth slaves
are a surprise Internet hit

Black Heritage Trail logo Three years ago I started putting local history on the Internet. Don't ask me why. It was like a calling.

Publishing online is wholly different from writing for periodicals, TV or radio. Traditional media are more ephemeral, arriving and departing in hours, minutes or seconds. News, the moment it is uttered or printed, becomes old news. But history articles on the Internet show no signs of age. Once posted, they hover there like a magician's assistant, levitating for an audience that arrives one viewer at a time, whenever it pleases.

Better yet, imagine a single Leggo fired into outer space. It's gone, yet it floats there, instantly accessible, infinitely, by anyone on Earth with a computer and a modem. Actually, the process is Greek to me. Webmaster Tim Dubuque runs our control central. I ship the pictures and articles to him via email from my computer to his. He wires each Leggo together, linking the pieces according to date, topic, theme and geography. Readers can enter through any portal, follow our electronic path, or disappear to another web site in milliseconds. At last count there were about 250 of our history pieces out there in cyberspace, knit together like a space station, twirling to the rhythm of a Strauss waltz.

We started with the classic tales of the white men who founded New Hampshire. These formed the skeleton of the history of our region, but very quickly we needed more. Olive Tardiff of Exeter offered a dozen short histories of local women. We searched for new perspectives, lesser known tales, long lost Leggos, early photos, legends, ghost stories, poems.

"You've got to talk to Valerie," nearly everyone told us. The first name is sufficient. Everyone around here knows Valerie Cunningham has been collecting stories of African-Americans for her Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail for more than two decades. We created a Black History section, soldered a few of Valerie's articles into the space station --- and suddenly the lights flickered on.

Timing was everything. Our web site came online two years ago in January. February is Black History month. For every American intrigued by local white heroes like Tobias Lear or John Langdon, a dozen more wanted to read Valerie's tales of slaves in her New Hampshire home town.

And what stories!

Talk about Daniel Fowle, editor of NH's first newspaper in 1756, and Valerie will tell you of Fowle's slave Primus -- permanently stooped from a lifetime of hand-cranking the large wooden press, jeered at by children, loyal and industrious to the age of 90. Talk of Daniel Webster and you'll hear back of King Nero, undisputed leader of the Negro Court in an invisible black world of private justice, not quoted in any law school. Mention Portsmouth's Gen. William Whipple, signer of the Declaration, and hear about his slave Prince Whipple, buried in the same North Cemetery, but with a scratched wooden marker rather than his "owner's" granite sarcophagus. Kidnapped and enslaved in America at the age of 10, Prince may be the lone black face in the famous painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware." How he got there is an alternate American odyssey that bears telling.

What amazes people about the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail is that there is so much of it. The as-yet-unpublished walking tour runs to over 200 typed manuscript pages, two decades of plodding research done largely by a single researcher. As an African-American woman working in a nearly all-white city, researching and writing in her spare time mostly without pay, the project was daunting at first. But house-by-house, document-by-document Valerie has uncovered an entire population of invisible people. She has given them back their names, slave names to be sure, since their identities were stripped away with their freedom. She has given them back their personalities, their homes, their heritage and their pride. Almost single-handedly, she has revealed another world, the dark side of the moon, a planet of enslaved Americans in one small New England seaport that, until she turned on the light, most people imagined to be an abolitionist stronghold.

The beauty of Valerie's work is its symmetry, the way it balances our traditional white view in the only state in America that still does not recognize Martin Luther King Day. We're not racist, as Jesse jackson said when he was here the other day, just slow to catch on.

Valerie's research shows an African-American history in Portsmouth that begins in 1645 with the first record of a slave imported to the Shaefe warehouse at what is now Prescott Park. Traveling the city house-by-house, she identifies its black inhabitants, redefining landmarks and reshaping our view of New Hampshire. Once you have seen Valerie's Portsmouth and met its invisible population, the city and its history are changed forever.

This February was my third Black History Month, the third year since Valerie taught me to see our shared invisible heritage. This year we added five more of her articles to our web site spinning out in cyberspace. We did it all by email, dots and dashes along phone wires from Val to me to Tim to the planet.

On the Internet, Valerie's work is powerfully democratizing. We already had a page on John Langdon and one on his historic mansion, the great white house of New Hampshire's first governor. To it, we fused Valerie's story of the Langdon family farm and the slaves who worked for them, producing the capital that supported the patriot's family wealth. To images of the North Church and St. John's Chapel we added her history of slaves in the Portsmouth Church, the assignment of "Negro pews" to the top back rows in "nigger heaven." In the William Pitt Tavern, now at Strawbery Banke, where signers of the Declaration met with Washington and Hancock, through Valerie's eyes, we now see runaway slaves Fortune and John. In the same rooms, we see tavern owner John Stavers, a man with a history of beating African slaves while at sea, auctioning off slaves in Portsmouth and exhibiting them as "curiosities" for a fee.

Behind Portsmouth's historic homes, from the Cutts Mansion to the Moffatt-Ladd House we often find wealthy white slave traders, builders of slave ships, owners of enslaved domestics. We find, more often then not, the invisible population living in attics, in basements and in backyard shacks. We find their graves without tombstones, the black cemeteries tarred over, their African-American names and images lost forever.

Not all the stories are heartbreaking. There are tales of courage, of occasional freed men and women, of African culture and tradition, of joyous family ceremonies, of patriotism, love affairs, respect, generosity, and loyalty.

Time passes. The space station spins. Today the web site has been praised by the Discovery Channel, linked by the Christian Science monitor and hundreds of other web pages and search engines around the world. These pages are taught in local schools and in online college courses. Valerie has since gone back to school to get an advanced degree. She was featured in a recent Yankee magazine article. The city of Portsmouth now includes her stories in its local tours. I'm very proud of her and thankful for the chance to spread the word.

The impact of the Black Heritage Trail online is marvelously therapeutic for some readers, disturbing for others. There is the rare hate letter from a white supremacist, but more often than not our email is crammed with thank-you notes and burning questions from people hungry for the truth that, they know, will set our collective psyche free.

A woman named Carol wrote to me from Ohio the other day. "It never ceases to amaze me whenever I read about slaves in NH," she says. "I never heard of that during my years of school -- I couldn't believe it. Now your information confirms it. I was so disappointed to learn of this mark on our wonderful history. Do you think the reasons we never heard any of this was because we didn't talk about those things? Or was I just not listening in class?"

Carol was listening, but no one was talking. Now Valerie's invisible people are speaking to her, all the way to Ohio. It is a painful reassessment, but a needed one. For minority readers, children especially, these tales are part of a new revised history.

More and more people are looking. Here are the facts. I called webmaster Tim this evening for the latest stats. We currently have 1,000 pages online covering everything from film reviews to dining tips. Only about two dozen of those pages relate to the region's African-American heritage -- yet the doorway to the Black History area is the third most popular page on the site. According to Tim, these combined pages were visited 2,000 times today by Internet readers around the world. The same number came yesterday, the day before and the day before. Based on these figures, we can project that this small black history data will be viewed 250,000 to a half million times in the year 1999. Nothing we have ever done has drawn such attention. Make of that what you will.

We are all heirs, North and South, to the errors of slavery and bigotry. That's the message I get from the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. Valerie herself makes no demands, lays no blame, extracts no confession. She lets her invisible forebears take the floor. This is the past, the real past, she seems to say. All I ask is that you open your eyes and see.

Article and page design
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

For more on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail click here

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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