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THE PEARL OF PORTSMOUTH:
The People's Baptist Story
by Valerie Cunningham
Sammons with Terry Littlefield
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
Friends of the
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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
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
© 2002 by Valerie Cunningham
Richard Candee and Jane Fithian.
Electronic publication copyright ©2002 by SeacoastNH.com.
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