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Following A Trail of Black History

Story ID:86
Written by:Phyllis Edgerly Ring (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Local History
Location:Portsmouth New Hampshire US
Person:Valerie Cunningham
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Valerie Cunningham's research is the kind that's bound to set certain myths on their ear. There's the myth that African Americans “just appeared” in the New Hampshire Seacoast region in recent decades.

Not even close. The year 1645 is the earliest in which this researcher has found evidence of their lives -- so far.

Another assumption is that during that time, most of the residents of color in this freedom-loving state “weren't t really slaves.”

“There's little question about whether it was slavery or not,” Valerie says. “The fact that people lived in the house with their masters and often worked side-by-side with them would give the impression that slavery was OK, perhaps, or at least a lot different.”

It wasn't. People of color were still considered property, were often mistreated, and family members were routinely sold away from each other, she says.

This researcher’s painstaking 30-year search for the presence of her people led to the establishment last year of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, a self-guided walking and driving tour that encompasses four centuries of African-American history in the New Hampshire Seacoast area.

Woven through its 40 sites is the evidence that African-Americans here raised generations of family, built community, founded institutions, and served their town, state and nation in many capacities. The Trail’s resources are documented in a curriculum/resource book that Valerie prepared along with Mark Sammons, Director of Education and Research at Portsmouth’s Strawbery Banke Museum.

As it brings a more complete local history to schools and cultural centers across a region long associated with Early-American history, the Trail is also broadening the perspective of the tens of thousands of visitors that choose Portsmouth as a vacation destination each year.

Raised in Portsmouth, where she was born 61 years ago, Valerie emphasizes that her work is not an attempt to trace her own roots, which originated elsewhere. Instead, it grew out of curiosity that arose during her high-school years, when she began asking questions for which she couldn't find answers.

“I was growing up at a time when black history was not taught. What I learned, I learned from my family and the Black church,” she says.

The history she did get in school included visits to historic houses in Portsmouth, where she learned how important the city was during Colonial times. “I became curious about what, if any,
African Americans had been in the Portsmouth area. It was sort of a kick to even think about whether there were Black Colonists.”

Her first research was in early records in Portsmouth. Because churches insisted that everyone be baptized, she says, these records were fairly complete, not so much with information about the person, other than first name, the name of the white owner and a date that verified that the Black person had existed and had been a slave.

“At the time, I didn't know what I was doing -- just trying to find out whether Black people had lived in Portsmouth, filling up notebooks with names and dates, proving that yes, they had been here,” says Valerie.

Their presence raised more questions: How did they get there? Where did they go? What was the master/slave relationship like?

She combed through county probate records of slaves passing from master to widow or children; newspaper advertisements offering rewards for runaways; or the sale of slaves, including those brought in by ship and sold at the dock in Portsmouth.

“I began to connect some of the names and realize that there were families, generations, to be identified,” she says. The difficulty of her task was compounded by the fact that enslaved peoples' names usually changed with the transfer of ownership. Plenty of “good White folks” names were among the names of those African Americans she found.

In 1779, 19 slaves in Portsmouth wrote a petition to the state Legislature asking that it put an end to slavery. Valerie calls it “quite an amazing document,” adding that there were several like it from various New England states. Law required that it be published, and the New Hampshire Gazette complied, with the addition of an editorial disclaimer at the top that proclaimed it only for the readers' “amusement” The state never acted on it, she notes.

Free persons of color, though rare, did exist in the area. Valerie found evidence of one through a record of his having purchased another black man in order to free him. Those who were free were always at risk of being kidnapped off the street and sold into slavery, she says.
One of the earliest records she found documents an instance in which an owner was instructed to return a slave he had purchased in Boston.

“That slave was among a group that had been kidnapped when an African village was raided and burned on the Sabbath, with a several hundred people killed,” Valerie says. “THAT was the crime, of course, that it occurred on that particular day,” so a court ordered that the New Hampshire slave be returned, supposedly for transportation back to Africa. “Whether he was actually returned or not, no one knows,” she says.

The Revolutionary War, in which black soldiers filled military vacancies, though barred from enlisting, brought an end to slavery in New Hampshire, she says.

Among the most notable of New Hampshire’s African-American Revolutionary soldiers was Prince Whipple of Portsmouth, who is believed to be depicted with General George Washington in the famous painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Prince and a cousin were originally sent to America by Prince’s wealthy father to attend university but were kidnapped en route and sold into slavery. Valerie notes that, while a soldier fighting with Washington in the Revolutionary War, Prince Whipple reportedly challenged his master, “You are going to fight for your liberty, but I have none to fight for.” It would be another seven years before he finally gained his freedom.

Eventually, Valerie says, the abolitionist movement was built on the early efforts of freed blacks whom she describes as “on the front lines, pushing and risking a lot to put an end to slavery.”

Women played their part, too, she says, organizing local groups for the huge task of helping those African Americans newly freed from slavery. Ester Whipple Mulleneaux, daughter of Prince Whipple, took a leading role in this task in New Hampshire.

“These women helped provide education, clothing, jobs and learning skills,” Valerie says, “and really established the first models for what has become the welfare system that we know today.”

The researcher stopped tracing records at around the year 1830 for two reasons: There were virtually no more African-American slaves by that time, and abolition was on the rise, making it less common for people to be identified by color in records, she says.

Valerie is now bridging back to that time period via oral histories she has been taking from older African American residents of Portsmouth. “I didn’t want their stories, their strengths and dignity in the face of all they had to deal with, to be lost,” she says.

These are among her favorite aspects of her work, since many of the interview subjects were people who played a significant role in her life as she grew up in a community with few African-Americans. “They mentored me, inspired me. I didn't want them to die without seeing this story told and contributing to it,” she says.

Part of what touched her in these stories was the persistence and hopefulness of that generation, born prior to WWI era, and their lack of bitterness. “They had inherited from parents and grandparents who had witnessed the realities of enslavement, that they would have an equal chance to achieve the American dream through hard work and good character,” Valerie describes. “While none complained about the life they had, each was in fact proud of his and her family and longevity and achieving what they considered to be a good life, they realized that their world of opportunities had been restricted by their race.”

In addition to capturing centuries-old history, sites on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail also recount more modern-day stories like that of Rosary B. Cooper. When World War II produced a labor shortage at home, this intrepid woman climbed high into the sky to become one of the nation’s first woman crane operators at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Although facts and dates and places are important, Valerie’s perseverance to find history’s “missing persons” has really been a search for stories like these – ones that show how history is often made up of the stuff of everyday lives, she says.

Recently, she retired from her position as administrative secretary at the University of New Hampshire's counseling center to devote more time to her research and the work of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.

Her home state has honored her efforts with its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Award and, more recently, a University of New Hampshire President's Award of Excellence. The best reward of
all, she says, is that people of all races are now embracing the black history she has uncovered as a part of everyone’s story.

More information about Valerie Cunningham and the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail are available by visiting www.seacoastnh.com/blackhistory.