In 2003, city workers digging on a sewer project in downtown Portsmouth came upon an unexpected find: 13 wooden coffins. It turned out that, in what’s now center city Portsmouth, there had once been a cemetery for African Americans, both slave and free. City documents recorded the existence of an African American burial ground in that area as early as 1705, but the modern-day residents had no idea.
Not many people think about slavery as a part of northern history and it’s true that it was never as prevalent as it was in the south. But it existed and was legal until the Civil War. There were 158 slaves in New Hampshire in 1790, according to the census, and one in 1840.
It took 13 years to decide what to do about the graves then, once it was decided, for the plans to come to fruition. Just last May, the city reburied the 13 coffins in a vault under the now closed Chestnut Street and dedicated a 7500 square foot park, called the African Burying Ground Memorial Park, over it.
At one end of the park is a bronze sculpture by Savannah, Georgia artist Jerome Meadow. It has a man and a woman standing back-to-back with a piece of New Hampshire granite between them, their hands reaching toward each other, almost touching. The woman represents Africa and the man represents the first African to be enslaved in Portsmouth. That man arrived in Portsmouth from Guinea in 1645.
Says an explanatory sign in the park: “Together, as each figure reaches around the edge of the granite slab toward the other, they physically embody the separation and uncertainty experienced by those brought here as captives, as well as their perseverance. The gaps between their fingertips is a reminder of their forced separation and of the divisions of past injustice.”
At the other end of the park is the underground burial vault, with a mosaic medallion marking its spot.
Next to the vault are bronze figures (also by Jerome Meadows), representing the community of Portsmouth. On each of the figures is a line from a poem by the scuptor:
I stand for the ancestors here and beyond
I stand for those who feel anger
I stand for those who were treated unjustly
I stand for those who were taken from their loved ones
I stand for those who suffered the middle passage
I stand for those who survived upon these shores
I stand for those who pay homage to this ground
I stand for those who find dignity in these bones
The ceramic pieces on the railing were made by Portsmouth public schoolchildren.
You may remember (I hope you do) from a couple of posts ago the story of a slave named Prince Whipple, who had been one of 20 men who had petitioned the New Hampshire legislature for freedom in 1779. Just a few years before, he’d been fighting in the Revolutionary War and had crossed the Delaware with George Washington on Christmas morning, 1776. Between the sculpture of the man and woman at one end of the park and the vault at the other is a stone path etched with lines from that (unsuccessful) 1779 petition for freedom.
There’s thought to be about 200 more people buried, undiscovered, under Chestnut Street.