We northerners tend to think of slavery as an institution peculiar to southern history, not to our own. But in fact, it was not at all uncommon for New Englanders to hold slaves. After all, New England ports — including Portsmouth — were the northern point of the infamous “Triangle Trade” of molasses, rum and slaves.
A census of 1775 shows that 656 Africans were enslaved in New Hampshire alone, most in the seacoast area. Here and there in the state are hints of it — the Sandown Meetinghouse has a slave gallery, for example. But only Portsmouth has made an effort to gather the information on Black culture of the Colonial and Federal eras and bring it together into more than a few fragmented footnotes to history.
In Your Bucket Because…
- There is a lot to learn about the role of Blacks – and of slavery – in New England’s history.
- The Black Heritage Trail takes you through the historical restorations of Strawbery Banke Museum and past other well-preserved homes of the Colonial period that are open to visitors.
- Good for travelers interested in Black heritage and American history.
The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail took us throughout the historic center of the city, from the wharves along the Piscataqua River to the People’s Baptist Church on Pearl Street. Attractive signs identify the sites and tell the stories of people who lived in the various houses and what happened at each site. The project is the result of years and years of painstaking research by the trail’s founder, Valerie Cunningham, who tracked down the stories that are told on the signs and in the self-guided walking tour brochure. These personal stories she tells make the history real as we walk the same streets today.
Where Slaves Were Auctioned
The tour begins, very appropriately, on Long Wharf, where ships arrived carrying the chained slaves, sold right on the dock. The first one recorded arrived from Guinea in 1645. The owner of the William Pitt Tavern, now part of Strawbery Banke Museum, auctioned some of the slaves, and his tavern is a site on the trail. Several interesting stories surround the tavern and its owner. One of these is told on the trail marker, illustrating how slaves were “invisible” in the eyes of the law, which protected them from being punished for misdeeds that their masters or others ordered them to do.
Not all the slaves were farm and domestic workers. Primus Fowle was a skilled printer, whose master was owner of the “New Hampshire Gazette.” Portsmouth also had a number of free Blacks, including Cyrus Bruce, who had been owned and freed by Governor John Langdon. As Langdon’s butler, he was a well-known figure in Portsmouth, and his story is told at the impressive John Langdon House, which we stopped to tour.
A New Perspective on Landmarks
We also toured the Moffatt-Ladd House, home of NH signer General William Whipple. His slave, Prince Whipple, who had been with the general in Philadelphia when he signed the Declaration of Independence, was one of 20 Portsmouth slaves who petitioned the New Hampshire legislature in 1779 to abolish slavery in the state. As the book It Happened in New Hampshire relates, “Their petition is an eloquent recital of the very principals that drove their owners to revolution and a remarkable reflection of the hypocrisy of their owners’ continued employment of the institution of slavery.”
Other familiar landmarks in Portsmouth have stories of Black history to tell. South Meetinghouse on Marcy Street was the first Black church in the state, moved there in 1890 when the Bible study group outgrew the living room of a local white family. Signs and descriptions bring the story into the 20th century, marking the locations of Black social clubs and fraternal orders, detailing the role of local Blacks in the military and in defense jobs at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Into the Twentieth Century
The Trail ends, chronologically with the 1960s and the work of people of all races in the Seacoast Council of Race and Religion, which was formed to raise money and otherwise help in such projects as the voter registration drives in Mississippi, and to provide a strong voice against local de facto segregation.
What makes the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail so compelling is the personal stories it tells, and the fact that it highlights many other areas of local history that have gone unnoticed. It is a fascinating walk through Portsmouth’s – and New England’s — past.
- Information about guided tours, lists of the sites, and copies of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail brochure, which describes the sites and contains a map, are available from The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, P.O. Box 838, Portsmouth 03802; 603/380-1231.
- You can walk the self-guided Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail year round, although the historic houses are closed for tours in the winter. Strawbery Banke Museum is open daily May through October; some buildings are open for special events in December.
- For the complete story of the petition presented by the Portsmouth slaves, see It Happened in New Hampshire, an anecdotal history of the state with an entire chapter devoted to that incident.