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African Slaves in Portsmouth

Aside from the public floggings, which were common enough, Valerie discovered that in 1695 Nathaniel Keen of Kittery, Maine, beat his slave woman to death and was charged with murder. But afterward the charge was reduced to cruelty, and Keen was released after paying a fine.

Valerie’s quest was not so much to find such injustices, though there were many to be found. Her quest was to find the past, the past in whatever form. One of her most important finds came while searching the microfilm. Inside a paper dated November 12, 1779, she came across a petition, signed by a group of 20 Portsmouth slaves, including Prince Whipple.

The petition read, in part: that through ignorance and brutish violence of their native countrymen, and by the sinister designs of others . . . and by the avarice of both, they, while but children . . . were seized, imprisoned, and transported from their native country, where they were born free, to a country where they are compelled to drag on their lives in miserable servitude. Thus, often is the parent’s cheek wet for the loss of a child, torn by the cruel hand of violence from her aching bosom; thus, often and in vain is the infant’ s sigh for the nurturing care of its bereaved parent, and thus do the ties of nature and blood become victims to cherish the vanity and luxury of a fellow mortal. Can this be right? Forbid it, gracious heaven.

The petition was presented to the governor of New Hampshire and the state legislators, and the Gazette was required by law to print the slaves’ plea for their freedom. However, at the end of the petition, the editor of the Gazette had seen fit to add his disclaimer: for the amusement of the reader.

“It made me sick, when I read that,” Valerie says now. “It made me angry and furious, but most of all it made me sick. I knew what was happening at that time, so it wasn’t really a surprise, but I was deep enough into this history to know that these were real men, and this was their sincere plea. And they were living in a time when white men had just finished a war for independence, and these slaves wanted their own independence as well. And they were being laughed at.”

She copied the petition by hand into her notebook, her only recourse at the time.

Perhaps this petition had more of an effect than the editor had hoped, perhaps other factors prevailed upon the powers of the time to see that slavery was wrong. Valerie’ s research shows that the last slave was recorded in the U.S. Census in New Hampshire in 1840, though the custom of slavery had pretty much died out early in that century.

It is a shadowy, one-dimensional history that Valerie has brought forth, but a history just the same. Perhaps it will never be anything but vague. She would give anything to see photographs, diaries, or something more tangible than single names entered into old records. “I am working with limited information. There is perhaps only so much that I can know.”

There is a serenity about Valerie Cunningham. She has an almost regal countenance as she moves about Portsmouth, her sandaled feet on the solid ground of her native soil. When she speaks of all this, her words bear no bitterness or even anger. She believes it’ s wrong that New Hampshire still does not celebrate Martin Luther King Day, but she knows how time changes things. “It’s going to happen. The state does celebrate the holiday. The only place that doesn’t observe it is the statehouse. There are some legislators who still don’t get it, who don’ t want to get it. But they are not going to be there forever.”

For Valerie the events of the past speak for themselves. She regards history as a tool of self-affirmation that helps her to understand who she is and who she is not. She lives here and sees the past in the present, as if through night-vision goggles. Where the Gap clothing store is now once was the Negro Court, where injustices were tried. Where the rhododendrons now grow beside North Church, black servants were once whipped. Just a block from where the Bank of New Hampshire has its nice brick fence, there was the big Negro cemetery.

When the city was putting in sewer lines, about a hundred years ago, workmen dug up bones, and children went out into the street and played with the bones. These were the bones of some of the slaves who lived in Portsmouth. Perhaps they were the bones of Venus or Prince Whipple. The fact was noted and the construction continued. There are houses there now, on top of the old slave cemetery.

But Valerie does not regard this with anger or defeat. She simply continues doing what she can do. She keeps looking — for Venus, for Fortune, for the past most everyone else would rather forget.

Updated Friday, April 18th, 2008

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