Thursday, June 25, 2015

Our Juneteenth visit to Portsmouth’s African Burial Ground

Yes, New Hampshire has a long history of African American heritage. Believe it or not.  You can even take a walking tour on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, which will open your eyes to history that has been all around you all along, but you never noticed.  Just like Black people are all around us in New Hampshire and New England, but mostly go un-noticed or ignored, their history has been swept under the rug.

Don’t assume that the Black people in New Hampshire were all slaves. Yes, there were slaves here, but there were also freemen who were craftspeople, landowners, business owners, and middle class members of society.  It is time to throw aside assumptions about what we think of Black history in New England, and to learn what really happened.  This is a story of segregation, and of a systematic forgetting the disenfranchised members of society.

In 2003, during a roadwork project on Chestnut Street in Portsmouth, the construction workers unearthed several very old coffins.  Construction halted as an investigation researched the burial spot.  It was determined that this was the “Negro Burying Ground” seen in early documents but eventually paved over and forgotten. In 2008 eight coffins and bodies were removed, and many more coffins were seen in the sides of the dig.   It was estimated that 200 bodies were located in the area.

DNA testing showed that the eight individuals who were temporarily removed were African.  The city council approved an African Burial Ground Committee in 2004, and this committee was charged with reburying and honoring those buried under and near Chestnut Street.  Over the following years, it was decided to close the street and erect a memorial park.  The dedication and reburials took place May 20 – 23rd, 2015.  We visited on June 19th, which seemed appropriate.

Someone left this anonymous, but touching note on the gravesite

"Mourning the
lives lost in
Charleston SC
these lives here
in Portsmouth
Rest in Peace"

This image will forever date our visit to this memorial, so close to the Charleston tragedy

"I stand for the Ancestors Here and Beyond
I stand for those who feel anger
I stand for those who were treated unjustly
I stand for those who were taken from their loved ones
I stand for those who suffered the middle passage
I stand for those who survived upon these shores
I stand for those who pay homage to this ground
I stand for those who find dignity in these bones
- Jerome Meadows, artist and sculptor"

These words are also engraved on the figures standing near the gravesite,
and on the plaques mounted on nearby buildings fronting the memorial park. 

The two figures, one of each side of the granite slab, are reaching towards each other with their hands. The male figure represents the first slave brought to Portsmouth in bondage, and the female figure represents Mother Africa.

The African Burying Ground is located on Chestnut Street, between Court and State Streets in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  There is street parking with meters nearby on both Court and State.  It is a short walk from Market Square.  Although this is now downtown Portsmouth, remember that in the early 1700s this area was the outskirts of the settlement- the fringes of regular society. 

The Portsmouth African Burying Ground website   “In Honor of Those Forgotten”

The Portsmouth African Burying Ground Facebook Group

The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail

My 2010 blog post about the Portsmouth African Burial Memorial

Published under a Creative Commons License
Heather Wilkinson Rojo,  "Our Juneteenth visit to Portsmouth's African Burial Ground", Nutfield Genealogy, posted June 25, 2015 ( :  accessed [access date]). 

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