Black History Holds a Special Place in Portsmouth NH 400 Celebration

Market Square In 1853 Portsmouth Nh

As Portsmouth celebrates its 400th anniversary and its rich history this year, members of the Seacoast community want to make sure the contributions made by scores of enslaved Africans, Black residents and other people of color are also remembered.

While at first glance Portsmouth may not appear to be a prominent destination for Black history, the city has made significant progress in recognizing its African American heritage and culture, serving as the home of the first Black Heritage Trail of NH, the African Burial Ground Memorial Park, as well as the home of the Seacoast African American Cultural Center, or SAACC.

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“In celebrating the 400, we can look at the 400 years that have happened. We can look at the good. We can look at the not-so-good, and also remember the ugly that happened and how we can correct that as a community.” 
–Sandi Clark Kaddy, President of SAACC

Digging into Portsmouth’s past isn’t just a moment for reflection; it’s also an opportunity to reexamine the way history is told, and learn from it to create a more equitable, responsible and inclusive future. “In celebrating the 400,” said Sandi Clark Kaddy, president of SAACC, “we can look at the 400 years that have happened. We can look at the good. We can look at the not-so-good, and also remember the ugly that happened and how we can correct that as a community. We can’t change history. But what can we change as a community moving forward? That’s my hope for the future of Portsmouth.”

The significance of Portsmouth’s Black history over its 400-year history is not lost on Portsmouth Police Chief Mark Newport, who became the city’s first African American chief law enforcement officer in January 2020.

“There’s a lot of history,” says Newport. “If you delve into it, it’s endless. I think the Portsmouth NH 400 is an opportunity to display a lot of history that happened here in this city, for whatever interests you.”

Newport’s hiring as Portsmouth police chief may never have happened if it were not for African American community activists who set the stage for the city to honor its Black history.

Joanna Kelley became the first black person to be elected as Portsmouth Assistant Mayor in 2021. She is also the first African-American assistant mayor in New Hampshire history. She has owned Cup of Joe Café and Bar on Market Street for five years and helped organize the Love Blooms event in response to a rash of hateful graffiti that was spray-painted on several city businesses in February.

Kelley, 34, grew up in Rochester and has watched Portsmouth and New Hampshire embrace its black history during her lifetime. She is very pleased that Portsmouth is celebrating its black history as it marks its 400th anniversary.

“We may be not at full circle, but we are at an acknowledgement phase,” says Kelley. “While I think we have come a long way, there is still a lot to do to learn more about our black history.”

Vernis Jackson recalled that when she first came to Portsmouth in 1963, there were very few African Americans and little to no sense of community like she had known in Savannah, Ga. Little by little, Jackson set out to change that. Over the next 40 years, Jackson worked with city officials to create the Seacoast African American Cultural Center and headed up the committee that created the African Burial Ground Memorial Park.

“There was a void here and some kind of way I helped to fill that void,” Jackson says. “I am very, very happy about that.”

The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, which is based in Portsmouth, has sought out numerous historic sites where Black history lives — and the group recently announced plans to create a mural to honor Ona Marie Judge Staines on the outside wall of its Court Street headquarters later this year.

Staines was born enslaved to Martha Washington but eventually escaped and lived her remaining life free in New Hampshire, according to Black Heritage Trail officials.

“Her story is really one of immense courage, and it tells us of the strength of the free Black community; it tells us of the soul of the Portsmouth community in the late 18th century,” says Barbara Ward, the coordinator of special projects for the Black Heritage Trail.

Portsmouth NH 400 officials also made it clear they want to reflect the contributions made by all city residents to “honor the city’s diverse and dynamic social, political, intellectual, cultural, economic and spiritual history, from the time of the early Native American settlements to the present,” as stated on the Portsmouth NH 400 website.

This commitment is also appreciated by members of the Seacoast Latino community.

“I think it’s incredible to celebrate 400 years as a town and as a city,” said Chef David Vargas, owner of Vida Cantina in Portsmouth and Ore Nell’s BBQ in Kittery, Maine, and co-creator of the New England BIPOC Festival. “Not only do we have to celebrate this, but we also have to continuously tell the story and the history behind Portsmouth and what that means,” Vargas explains. “That is our due diligence as people that want to carry on the history of this town.”

Carrying on Portsmouth’s history is a key mission for dozens of performances, historic lectures, tours and more. Here are some of the event highlights celebrating New Hampshire’s Black and Indigenous culture:

Creole Soul: Zydeco Lives Exhibit | April 10

A special exhibit running April 10 to June 10 at the Seacoast African American Cultural Center (SAACC) features 35-40 framed images by photographer Gary Samson who documented the work of Burt Feintuch, a traditional music ethnographer who interviewed contemporary zydeco musicians. Feintuch, who was a Portsmouth resident, passed away in 2018 while working on a book by the same name as the exhibit. Samson as well as Feintuch’s partner, Jeannie Banks Thomas, completed the book after his passing. On May 4, Banks Thomas will speak about the book at SAACC’s opening reception.

Portsmouth Juneteenth Celebrations | June 16-19

From June 16-19, Portsmouth will transform for Juneteenth, with multiple events to honor Black history and heritage and to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. (and specifically the arrival of that emancipation to Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865). Gatherings include:

  • The opening of the “IF YOU KNEW, LET IT BE US” art exhibit by mixed-media painter and art educator McKinley Wallace III at 3S Artspace Studio, as well as “The Sum of Us,” an exhibition at the Seacoast African American Cultural Center featuring the black-and-white drawings of popular visual storyteller Richard Haynes.
  • The Juneteenth reggae festival, which celebrates the music of the African Diaspora and honors the legacy of roots reggae with Caribbean food, craft vendors and music from a variety of performers, hosted on the grounds of the living history museum Strawbery Banke and presented by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire.
  • A dance performance by Camille A. Brown and Dancers on June 18 called Reclaiming Black Narratives focused on elevating African Diasporic culture, hosted at the Portsmouth Music Hall.
  • On June 19 (Juneteenth), join the Seacoast African American Cultural Center for a walk over the Kittery Bridge to the Portsmouth African Burying Ground, followed by a traditional African drumming ceremony featuring drumming and dance from the Akwaaba Ensemble hosted by the Black Heritage Trail of NH.
War And Conflict Book Era: Civil War/background: Slavery & Abolitionism

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection)
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NARA FILE #: 200-FL-22

Frederick Douglass Reading | July 1

Every year, the Black Heritage Trail of NH hosts a reading of Frederick Douglass’ famous protest speech, “What to a Slave is The Fourth of July?” This year the speech will be read at Strawbery Banke’s Goodwin Garden with an opportunity for listeners to reflect on the speech’s continued relevance today.

Piscataqua Pow Wow | August 12-13

Strawbery Banke will host an intertribal celebration of Native American culture and heritage featuring drumming by the Black Thunder Singers, storytelling, dancing and more.

New England BIPOC Fest | Sept 24

The brainchild of Portsmouth chefs David Vargas and Evan Mallet and café owner Joanna Kelly, the festival brings together hundreds of spectators, performers and participants for a day to celebrate the food, art and music that exists among cultures throughout New England. “We wanted to represent and give voice to the communities that aren’t really heard of and/or listened to throughout New England,” said Vargas.

“As a BIPOC community member, I didn’t realize how bad we needed this. We need our spaces to really have our voices be heard. And so that way we can talk with each other, and also show the community that we are here — let alone the Indigenous community itself. The first settlers are the people that owned this land. We need to represent it and hear their stories. And for us to be able to use our platform to have a space for that, that safe space for that is absolutely amazing to me.”

Dennis Robinson is widely regarded as one of New Hampshire’s leading historians. But even he was amazed when he first became aware of Portsmouth’s rich African history. Robinson recalls that he had a life-changing interview with Valerie Cunningham, creator of Portsmouth’s Black Heritage Trail, 25 years ago that changed the way he examines — and writes — his history books.

“Since (that interview), I’ve written a dozen history books and over a thousand articles,” says Robinson. “With each new project I ask myself: How did this moment in time impact people of color in a largely white state?  Where are the women in this story? What was life like for children of this era, for Indigenous people, for immigrants, for anyone who was different? The more questions I ask, the more New Hampshire history makes sense and the more lively, honest and interesting our shared past becomes.”

Thanks to the efforts of community members and city officials, Portsmouth’s rich Black history will remain relevant and vibrant now and well into the future. Someone once said it takes a village. In this case, it takes a city to make sure its history that was created by people of many different cultures, faiths and diversity is remembered and celebrated for generations to come.

603diversity Issue7This article is featured in the spring-summer 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.

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