Friday, June 12, 2020
June 12, 2020: Portsmouth Posts: The Black Heritage Trail
[In early May, with the lockdown closing in around us a bit, my sons and I took a daytrip up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where we walked around the historic waterfront area (masked and at a social distance from fellow visitors, natch). This week I’ll highlight a handful of histories from this multi-layered New England community, leading up to a special post on other NE historic daytrips!]
On three of the many educational stops along a vital historic path.
1) The African Burying Ground: No engagement with Portsmouth’s history can avoid two crucial yet contradictory facts: the city reflects and exemplifies the foundational presence and influence of African Americans throughout colonial New England; yet until very recently that presence was entirely absent from the city’s public presentations of its histories and stories. Summing up both of those layers (literally as well as figuratively) is the city’s African Burying Ground, the only known 18th century cemetery for New England African Americans; yet one that as of a few years ago was invisible, paved over and turned into a parking lot. The reason I know and can share the first and more important part of that duality is thanks to the work of the folks at the African Burying Ground Trust, a community that overlaps closely with those who maintain the Black Heritage Trail (like Executive Director JerriAnne Boggis). Thanks to their efforts, these vital Portsmouth and American histories have begun to be written back into the landscape and our collective memories.
2) Noyes Academy: New Hampshire, like other New England states, began gradually abolishing slavery in the years after the Revolution (although I do mean gradual, and even that process required the voices and efforts of courageous enslaved African Americans and their allies). But if anyone thinks that abolition meant that the state became thoroughly inclusive or integrated, feel free to point them to the tragic, ugly history of Canaan’s Noyes Academy: founded in March 1835 by abolitionists as America’s first co-educational school for African Americans; and destroyed in August and September of that same year (after months of virulent opposition in the press) by rampaging mobs of white supremacist townspeople. In those few short months of operation, the school featured as students such vital future leaders as Henry Highland Garnet and Alexander Crummell, making it a doubly significant historic landmark. But there’s no escaping the most telling fact about Noyes Academy, as captured in its Canaan historic marker: that this inspiring educational community so “outraged opponents” that they turned to mob violence in response.
3) The Harriet Wilson Memorial Sculpture: History is told not just through the best and worst of such collective spaces and experiences, however, but also through the individuals who live and shape it. No New Hampshire individual has a more compelling story (in every sense) than Harriet Wilson (1825-1900), who from her birth and childhood of indentured servitude in Milford through her autobiographical novel Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), Spiritualist lectures and séances, and late-life religious and educational ventures experienced and shaped a good deal of 19th century American society. Thanks to the efforts of the Harriet Wilson Project, which funded Fern Cunningham’s Wilson Memorial Sculpture in Milford’s Bicentennial Park among many other spots on the Milford Black Heritage Trail, this unique yet telling New Hampshire, New England, and American life can, like all these histories and stories, be more fully included in the landscape of our collective memories.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other historic sites or daytrips you’d highlight?