New Film Explores Portsmouth's Past

The history of the town's African burying ground is explored

JerriAnne Boggis (left)and Valerie Cunningham

“Shadows Fall North,” a new film by Portsmouth’s Atlantic Media Productions, is a powerful documentary about our state’s past and the unexpected stories that sometimes lie, literally, beneath our feet.

A focus of the film is the discovery of wooden coffins on a residential street in Portsmouth during a sewer and water project in 2003. It turns out the neighborhood had been built on the site of an “African burying ground” that dated back to the 1700s. Work halted to allow more investigation, but what to do with an important archaeological site that is covered with homes?

With the leadership of two “citizen historians,” Valerie Cunningham and JerriAnne Boggis, a plan was formulated to turn the street itself into a public monument to those buried there and, in doing so, cast a new light on the role that the North, and New Hampshire in particular, played in the era of slavery.

And it’s on just this twist that the film finds its traction, revealing that while the New England states may relish their credentials as an abolitionist haven from the slave trade in the 1800s, for more than a century, the ownership and trade in human souls took place even here.

Other strands to this thesis are uncovered and examined, like the tale of Harriet Wilson, a black servant in a Milford home who wrote “Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black,” the first novel by an African-American woman. The thinly veiled autobiography contained in its pages suggests that the role of the “servant” differed little from slavery for those of African descent.

A cast of memorable characters including Henry Louis Gates Jr. and sculptor Jerome Meadows carry the narrative along to the day in 2015 when Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground monument was dedicated.

The movie was still undergoing final edits when this review was written. Soon, both the monument and this film will serve as graceful and enduring reminders of how the worst of the past can sometimes be redeemed by those willing to plumb its depths with an open mind and a conviction to accept whatever truth lies beneath. (More at 

Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Popular Articles

  1. Washington New Hampshire
    Washington is one of New Hampshire’s most overlooked towns, and it also happens to be one of...
  2. Pets to the Rescue
    Some animals are more than pets — they can comfort, teach and assist their humans in a number...
  3. A Closer Look at NH's Own Seth Meyers
    The “Late Night” host returns to New Hampshire for a good cause
  4. Guide to Retirement Living and Continuing Care
    The concept of retirement and senior living is not what it once was.
  5. Vermin Supreme
    Getting to know the fringe presidential candidate who has been running for office since 1992
  6. Dining Off the Beaten Path in Portsmouth
    The up-and-coming Islington Street in Portsmouth's West End has it all - except the big crowds.
  7. No Man's Land Between NH and Canada
    The tall tale(s) of two boundary markers
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags