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African Slaves in Portsmouth

African Slaves in Portsmouth
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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.

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.

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