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THE PEARL OF PORTSMOUTH:
The People's Baptist Story

by Valerie Cunningham
and Mark Sammons with Terry Littlefield

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Portsmouth's Black citizens attended local churches since the 1600s . But their numbers were not sufficient to establish a church of their own until the last quarter of the 19th century. People's Baptist Church is a critical part of that story.

In 1873 under the leadership of Edmund Kelly, a group of Portsmouth's Black citizens gathered for worship in the Baptist tradition at the South Ward Room on Marcy Street [now The Children's Museum]. The gathering flourished. Then Kelly was "unavoidably called away" to Massachusetts. The group continued under the guidance of Elder John

Tate. When Tate died a short time later services ceased. Not long after, Kelly returned to Portsmouth. While in Massachusetts he had visited and assisted churches he had earlier helped organize in Lawrence, Haverhill, and West Newton. In 1879 Kelly rallied Portsmouth's fledgling church community. The meetings brought new attendees, many inquiries, and a new convert, with baptisms planned for

the near future. Nothing further is heard of this gathering. Its membership may have been absorbed into a Bible study class which was organized a decade later.

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The People's Mission

The Ward Room again figured in the religious life of Portsmouth's black families. In 1889 James F. Slaughter moved to Portsmouth, and began conducting Bible study classes in his home at the corner of Bridge and Hanover Streets at 3:00 on Sunday afternoons. Attendance grew rapidly; they moved to the South Ward Room in 1890. They held Sunday school at 3:00 p.m. and preaching at 8:00 p.m.. They called themselves the People's Mission. The 17 members of this mixed-denominational group consisted of 12 Baptists, four Methodists, and one Episcopalian.

Three years later, in 1892, the People's Mission voted to re-organize. Twelve members pledged their membership in the new People's Baptist Church. The other five continued to support and worship in the church.

At the start, the church was affiliated with the Middle Street Baptist Church, though meeting separately. The People's Baptist Church requested and was granted autonomy from the Middle Street Baptist Church in 1908. A close relationship remained between the two congregations and extends to New Hope Church today.

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Local Church Leaders

James Slaughter is considered the founder of People's Baptist Church.For the rest of his life he served as a deacon, and for many of those years as treasurer too. He had come to Portsmouth around 1890 from Virginia. For a time he was a deacon at Boston's Joy Street Baptist Church (now the African Meetinghouse Museum).

During his first decade in Portsmouth Slaughter worked at the seamen's home operated on Market Street by the Seamen's Aid Society. Slaughter worked the remaining 20 years of his life as the sexton or caretaker of the North Church chapel. He married Miss Ossie Turnson of Rumney, NH.

James Slaughter lived by the Golden Rule, and won the esteem of the whole community. When he died in January of 1921, all who knew him regretted his loss. Portsmouth's Mayor FW Hartford and many businessmen attended his funeral. The ministers of People's Baptist Church and North Church jointly officiated at his funeral.

Under the focused leadership of Reverend John L. Davis church members raised a fund of $2,000 for the acquisition of their own building. In 1915 People's Baptist Church used $1,200 of this fund to purchase an old church building on Pearl Street. The church had been built back in 1853 by the Free Will Baptists. With some modest alterations, it was ready for use.

Reverend Davis conducted the first service in their new home on June 6, 1915. At this service, Mrs. Cynthia Hall, one of five non-member affiliates from back in the mission days, became a member and was baptized, fulfilling her promise to join the congregation when they had acquired their own building.

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Martin Luther Meets Coretta
and Changing Times

Guest preachers included occasional seminarians, a custom that provided good experience for their later careers. A 1952 service honoring the church's 59th anniversary featured a special guest. The speaker, a preacher and seminarian at Boston University, would subsequently emerge as one of the leading voices of the civil rights movement -- the young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. King had recently made a name for himself at a national convention. The guest choir from Malden, Massachusetts included soloist Coretta Scott, the future Mrs. King.

In the early and mid 20th century, Portsmouth's Black residents could and did belong to other churches, where they were conspicuous by their small numbers among predominantly white congregations. For example, Sophie Scott, was a dedicated worker for People's Baptist Church and her husband was a deacon there. Mrs. Scott, however, was a member of Christ Episcopal Church (then located on Lovell Street), where she also took care of the communion linens. Her simultaneous activity at the People's Baptist Church shows its importance in the life of Portsmouth's Black community.

In the 1970s church attendance and membership throughout the United States dropped steadily. American culture was drifting away from formal religion, and People's Baptist felt the impact too. In addition, a split within the congregation led to the dissolution of People’s and the organization of the present Baptist church, named New Hope. Finally, the New Hope congregation felt it was time to move on to a more suitable location and made the difficult decision to sell the old building on Pearl Street.

Today, all three church sites are part of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail: the Children’s Museum on Marcy Street, The Pearl Function Hall on Pearl Street, and New Hope Baptist Church on Peverly Hill Road.

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Into the 21st Century

New Hope Baptist Church continues in the tradition of People's as a focal point for much of the Black community. The minister and congregation welcome people of all faiths and races to visit and worship with them. The church is on Peverly Hill Road, off of either Rte. 1 or Rte. 33. (603-431-7310).

Between the ‘70s and early '90s, the building was the site of the 72 Restaurant, an elegant four-star eatery. It's jaunty appearance included striped awnings and silhouetted faces painted on the belfry tower. In the 1990s, the building changed hands again and was returned to its former life as a place of worship. Margaret Britton, a spiritual leader of the Unity Church and a stained glass artist, now owns "The Pearl of Portsmouth ". It is located near downtown Portsmouth, off Islington Street at the corner of Pearl and Hanover Streets.

Under the stewardship of the present owner and with the support of a dedicated group of volunteers, The Friends of the Pearl, the building is now on both the national and state registers of historic places. Efforts are underway to secure a preservation easement that will protect the historic and cultural significance of this building as the home of New Hampshire’s first and only Black congregation through the first half of the 20th century.

This year the Pearl received funds to rebuild its historic belfry. The LCHIP grant awared in New Hampshire, the building is on its way to complete renovation of its original tower.


Friends of the Pearl
The Friends of the Pearl is a registered trademark of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, Inc. , a 501(3)c nonprofit organization. Donations for the restoration of the building on Pearl Street may be sent to PBHT, PO Box 5094, Portsmouth NH 03802-5094. (603-431-2768 or pbhtrail@aol.com)

About the Author
Editor's Note: Valerie Cunningham has been researching, writing and teaching about local black history for 25 years. Her avocation has made her one of the region's experts and she is consultant to the Black History section of SeacoastNH.com. This article, complete with detailed footnotes, first appeared in Historical New Hampshire (Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 1989) published by the NH Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

African American Resource Center
PO Box 5094
Portsmouth, NH 03801-5094
603-431-2768

© 2002 by Valerie Cunningham
Photos courtesy Richard Candee and Jane Fithian.
Electronic publication copyright ©2002 by SeacoastNH.com.

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