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African Slaves in Portsmouth

African Slaves in Portsmouth
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Excerpt from Yankee Magazine February 1999

It is 1968, and in the dark back room of St. John’s Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a young black woman is seated at a small table, bent over church records. This is not the beginning of Valerie Cunningham’ s search, but it is the beginning of her success. As she runs her finger down the yellowed page, which records various births and baptisms in, as well as contributions to, that church during the year 1807, she stops at this entry: “Contribution Xmas day, Venus — a Black — $1.”

The name Venus: She knew she had encountered this before. She turned back the pages of her notebook and scanned her notes. Back a few pages, she found the connector, an entry she had copied earlier from the same church records. Baptism in 1747 of Venus, child of Dorcas Bradford. She had written that down because of the name, Venus, which she thought might be the name of a slave child. This 1807 entry seemed to confirm that.

Even when she first encountered it, Valerie knew that the name Venus was likely that of a slave, since names of this sort — neither African nor Christian — were often given by whites to separate the enslaved from both their African families as well as from proper society. So she could be reasonably certain that Venus was a slave. But the fact that Venus did not have a last name meant that Venus was no longer in the household of a white slave owner. Valerie knew then that Venus had been freed. And so here was Venus, alive in 1807, a freed slave in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, receiving the generous contribution of one dollar, no small sum in those days.

It was just a smidgen of knowledge, that seven-word entry in the otherwise voluminous records of that church, but for Valerie it was a huge triumph, an affirmation of all that she had begun when she started looking for the hidden history of the black people of that port city.

“Now that I had found Venus, that meant I had to keep going,” Valerie says now. Now in her late fifties, Valerie Cunningham has never stopped looking. Since that small moment, when she was married and the mother of a toddler and an infant daughter, Valerie has acquired enough such information to fill a 260-page three-ring binder and to guide those interested on a walking tour that leads around Portsmouth to 40 different sites — from the place where slave auctions were held to the house where a freed slave once lived. The book and the tour, both called The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, are the culmination of nearly a lifetime spent in search of what it’ s all about for the minority of blacks who live and work in Portsmouth.

In the years that she has been looking, she has discovered that some 659 slaves lived and worked in the Portsmouth area between the years 1645 and 1800. “Slavery was never abolished in New Hampshire,” she says matter-of-factly. “The 13th amendment took care of that. Still, other New England states adopted resolutions about slavery, but New Hampshire never put it into writing. It is that ‘Live Free or Die’ attitude, whatever that means!” she says with a knowing laugh.

Valerie’s research rested in her notebook until she met Mark Sammons, the former director of research at Strawbery Banke. Soon after Mark came to Portsmouth in 1989, he heard about Valerie. He read a short article she had published about black history and also went to hear her speak. He was impressed and had wanted to meet her, but it was Valerie who eventually approached him with her idea of putting together a brochure and walking tour. With this in mind, in 1995 Mark wrote an application for a grant that would enable him to explore the city’ s black history. Under the auspices of this grant, Mark and Valerie began work on their brochure.

“Our work extended far beyond the scope of that grant,” Mark says. “It became a labor of love for both of us. We would have meetings that would turn into six-hour marathon sessions — there was so much to put together of what she had discovered over the years.” They eventually found an intern to work with them, and when they were done, “We found that we didn’ t have a brochure any more. “Out of their work came the trail and the book, which is now in every school in the city as well as on reserve at the Portsmouth Library.

Valerie is a strong-looking woman with kind, cinnamon eyes, light skin the color of coffee and cream, and a cloud of russet hair. It is a breezy warm day, and we are sitting at an outdoor cafe in Portsmouth’s Market Square. Across the street, the great soaring steeple of North Church rises above us, and young well-dressed men and women mingle on the brick sidewalk. The air is full of the rich smell of coffee and sweet pastries. It is lunchtime, and everyone has come out to sample the warm air and the good food. A shiny red-black-and-yellow trolley trundles by — ding-ding! — and the tourists on board lean this way and that as they survey the historic buildings all around. It is a happy, prosperous scene that shows a Portsmouth transformed. Two centuries before this moment, just steps from where we are sitting, Negroes were publicly flogged. Valerie, the only black person in sight, is likely the only person present in this busy scene who is aware of this wild contrast.

Valerie Cunningham was born and grew up in Portsmouth, where she graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1959. She was the only child of Clarence and Augusta Cunningham, who came to Portsmouth from, respectively, North Carolina and Virginia. Growing up black in the 1940s and 1950s in Portsmouth was different from, say, growing up black in North Carolina, but it was not devoid of pain. “We saw it all on television, the civil-rights struggles that were going on down South,” Valerie recalls. The racial obstacles that Valerie encountered in Portsmouth were muted but nonetheless present. “It wasn’t as if people went around calling me ‘nigger.’ It was much more subtle than that,” she says now. “And the Ku Klux Klan was active here at that time.”

She credits her parents and the small but tightly knit black community for guiding her into the person she is today. Though she has traveled widely — her husband, from whom she is now divorced, was in the Air Force, and they lived on bases all over the country and in Guam and the Philippines — Portsmouth is Valerie’s choice of where she wants to live. She knows the city intimately, its every layer of history.

“Portsmouth was a nice place to grow up,” she concludes. “My mother is a smart woman. She wanted to be sure that I knew that I was black. She is fair-skinned and can pass [for white], but she knew that wasn’ t what it was all about. She wanted me to understand what it means to be black, what our heritage is, and who we are.”

In high school, Valerie worked at the library every minute of her spare time — afternoons, weekends, summers. She liked being in a place where it was quiet and information could be discovered. At the time, Dorothy Vaughn was the head librarian. Dorothy Vaughn spearheaded the efforts to preserve Strawbery Banke, the city’ s impressive historic district.

Updated Friday, April 18th, 2008

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