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African Slaves in Portsmouth

But what was the history of the blacks of Portsmouth, the young Valerie began to wonder. Even though blacks have represented only one percent of the population of New Hampshire for more than 200 years, Portsmouth was different. As much as five percent of its population is black, a figure that held true in Colonial times as well. She knew that in her church, a vigorous community of Portsmouth blacks, there was an oral history that was very much alive. But where was this written down? And if it wasn’t, why wasn’t it?

Valerie’s hunger for this information did not diminish. It grew. After she married into the Air Force, Valerie got used to moving and finding what she could of the history of her people. About a year before she found Venus, Valerie found a book that legitimized her search. Browsing in the back stacks at a library in Delaware, where her husband was then stationed, she came across a book called The Negro in Colonial New England. “That was the first book on black history I had ever found. It told me for sure that there had been slavery in New England, and it specifically mentioned Portsmouth.” In her long journey she had taken one very important step.

Whenever she came home to Portsmouth, on leave or else for brief stints at Pease Air Force Base, Valerie would ask her mother to take care of her children, and she would return to her task. Her early work at the library had taught her how to research things, and she learned of other sources for early history, such as the records at old churches and in city hall. Valerie needed only to have the door cracked and she was inside, scouring the records, searching and searching for those unusual names. In time she found Cesar, and she found Prince, and she found Pharaoh, Quam, Cato, Nero, Romeo, names almost cruelly inappropriate. She wrote it all in longhand in her growing notebook.

Eventually she went further into the stacks, into the old newspapers, which were stored on microfilm. Turning the crank and peering at the gauzy screen, she flipped by page after page of the New Hampshire Gazette. There she found ads for runaway slaves. These gave her physical descriptions, which thrilled her — to have these people, to whom she now felt wed, become more than just names, more than just the property of a white man.

In the May 11, 1764, edition of the New Hampshire Gazette, she found this ad: Ran-away — Negro Boy named Fortune, age 16, wearing a red jacket and canvas trousers.

Based on the information Valerie had gathered, Mark Sammons wrote this in The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail: “We will never know what incident triggered Fortune’s departure, perhaps an argument, a scolding, or a blow like that delivered a dozen years earlier to the ship’s captain’s slave. But the underlying cause was the condition and nature of enslavement. The tasks at the tavern may seem routinely domestic, but slavery was never benign. While white youths were formulating visions of their future, Fortune had few choices in life and little hope of improved status.”

This reading of the old Gazettes on microfilm was a hypnotic task that absorbed Valerie so thoroughly that one night she was locked into the library. “The custodian found me late that night. It’s so quiet back where I was working that they didn’t know I was there. And I didn’t know what time it was.”

Valerie notes in her book that running away in 1764 left the unhappy slave with little choice and few places to go. “The 13 colonies combined had only a few thousand free blacks, with no community large enough for a runaway to disappear into.” Aside from that one ad, Valerie found no more references to Fortune. She felt a kinship with each slave she discovered: “I always had a hard time when I read about the children being taken from their mothers. That still is hard for me to read about.”

Without records of births or deaths, marriages or baptisms, slaves were an invisible presence, easily forgotten. In her search through the old newspapers, Valerie found many ads for runaways. “It’s ironic that that was one way they made themselves known to me, through these ads or through something else that would make the newspaper. Otherwise there were no records of them at all. Unless they misbehaved, they simply were not accounted for.”

The ads offered her clues she did not expect. For instance, she was struck by the colorful clothing the slaves wore. Cromwell, aged 45, who ran away from Henry Sherburne Jr., wore a blue cloth coat and breeches, and a scarlet cloth jacket with metal buttons. Jean Paul, a French Creole, who ran away in 1764, wore an earring, a red handkerchief on his head or in his pocket, a blue jacket, striped overalls, and large buckles on his half-boots. Scipio, who ran away from James Dwyer of Portsmouth in 1793, sounds exotically dapper. He was described as wearing a “Saxon blue Frize jacket Lin’d with baize, slash sleeves and small metal buttons, a brown Fustian jacket without sleeves, a pair of scarlet everlasting breeches.” The colorful attire, the earrings and buckles, all indicated to Valerie that the slaves may not have retained their African names, but they retained their African love of color and style. “A lot of the slave owners would give their old clothes to the slaves and be surprised to find that they would use the colors so differently, combining stripes and plaids.”

Valerie grew up in a house just steps from Stoodley’s Tavern, one of the showpieces of Strawbery Banke. Stoodley’s Tavern was known as a place where Paul Revere had stopped in 1774 to announce the news that the British were on their way from Boston to New Castle, an announcement that prompted the sole military action of the American Revolution on New Hampshire soil.

In her research, much of which is now used by Strawbery Banke, Valerie discovered that Stoodley’s Tavern had a darker history. Just ten years earlier, the building had been the site of public slave auctions. She found several dozen advertisements in Portsmouth newspapers that read like this one: To be sold at public vendue at the house of Mr. James Stoodley, Innholder in Portsmouth, on Wednesday the seventh day of July . . . three Negro men and a Boy. The conditions of the sale will be cash or good merchantable items.

Ironically it was in Mark Sammons’s former office on the second floor of the now restored Stoodley’ s Tavern that he and Valerie collaborated on the creation of The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. Through this work with Valerie, Mark came to know that this famous tavern was not only the place where Paul Revere came, but it was also the place where Frank and Flora, both slaves, helped to unload the ships for the auctions, which included their young compatriots from Africa. Mark deeply admires Valerie’s contribution to Portsmouth’ s unusual history, still emerging. “She is a community treasure,” he says. “She not only has the gift, but she shares it.”

Across from Stoodley’s Tavern was the wharf, where the young Africans were brought in. “Often they were sold right off the boat,” Valerie explained. “Most households in Portsmouth accommodated only one or two slaves, which accounts for the fact that slave ships did not, as a rule, dock in Portsmouth. Instead, the Africans came as part of another shipment, cotton or rum or sugar. Often merchants would put in an order for a slave to outgoing sea captains, and so, when they were in West Africa buying other goods, they would kidnap a few children to take back with them. Most households preferred to have the slaves come in as youngsters, old enough and strong enough to be useful but still young enough to be trained in the way they wanted them.

“A lot of people seem to think that slavery in Portsmouth, or in New England, was somehow more benign than slavery in the South. They will say to me, ‘You don’t mean real slavery, do you?’ Of course. Slavery was slavery, and there is no indication that the slaves who lived and worked in Portsmouth were any better treated than they were elsewhere.”

Updated Friday, April 18th, 2008

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