Meet New Hampshire's past, present and future agents of change
When I was asked to write this essay, I began the journey with a high degree of trepidation. How can I encapsulate hundreds of years of history within a few thousand words? How can I ensure the story of New Hampshire’s African American population is told with the level of authenticity it requires? What stories best exemplify the African American experience in New Hampshire? Regardless of the task that lies ahead, I knew this is a story worth telling, and that my experience mirrors many of my fellow Granite Staters’.
It’s important to note that while my story and the stories of African Americans living in New Hampshire represents our unique reality, there are thousands of Africans, Latinos and other communities of color in New Hampshire with their own stories that are yet to be told and deserve a similar platform.
People of African descent have been living in New Hampshire since the first enslaved African was unloaded onto our shores in Portsmouth. During a conversation in preparation for this essay, JerriAnne Boggis, executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, was adamant to reinforce that for more than 300 years, the lives of African people and their descendants have been a part of New Hampshire’s history, although that history has long been hidden in the shadows.
On November 12, 1779, 20 enslaved Africans petitioned the New Hampshire state legislature for their freedom citing the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Since Ona Judge fled to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1796 to escape her enslavement by President George Washington, and Harriet E. Wilson, an African American woman from Milford, published her autobiographical narrative, “Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of A Free Black” in 1859, New Hampshire’s African American community have been sharing it’s “truth.” And while the numbers of African Americans in the state remain relatively small when compared against the majority, our stories are no less relevant.
The Old Heads, the Bridges & Today’s Change Agents
Since making New Hampshire my home, I have worked to create and sustain community in my professional and personal life, and it’s through these experiences I have been able to learn and appreciate the African American experience in New Hampshire. To be clear, New Hampshire is by no means unique and, through a series of interviews, I’ve come to realize the state’s Black population experiences are reflective of other Blacks throughout the diaspora.
My Granite State story began in January 1997, when I moved here from Dayton, Ohio, to work for Southern New Hampshire University’s School of Community Economic Development.
My story, like the majority of Granite Staters, began somewhere else, and New Hampshire’s African American population is no different. For those not born here, we generally found our way to New Hampshire for work, for school or as a respite from New England’s larger urban communities. This is true regardless of the generation.
Here are some of the formative experiences and impressions of seven Granite Staters representing three generations of African Americans. Their stories reflect the opportunities, struggles and impediments to success experienced by many of the African Americans living in New Hampshire.
“The Old Heads”
The Great Migration, sometimes known as the Great Northward Migration, was the movement of 6 million African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West that occurred between 1916 and 1970. It was caused by the poor economic conditions and the prevalence of racial segregation, discrimination and lynchings in the Southern states. In every US Census prior to 1910, more than 90% of African Americans lived in the American South. The Great Migration was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in US history.
A small number of African Americans found their way to New Hampshire during this time. They worked at places like the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Manchester’s Grenier Air Force Base, among others. The late Inez and Frank Bishop represent notable examples. They left Mobile, Alabama, seeking economic opportunity and refuge from Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, moving to Manchester in 1946.
In a recorded interview, Inez said the only other Black person she would see in town — other than family and close family friends — was her reflection in store windows. Inez led the way, creating the foundation for those who would come after her, as she was a founding member of the Manchester branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the past president of the Greater Manchester Black Scholarship Foundation. Both organizations are active today, continuing to advocate for social and economic justice as they’ve done for over 50 years. They’ve served hundreds, if not thousands, of young students of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds across New Hampshire.
Other notable African American “Old Heads” include Sandy Hicks, Jacqueline and Bill Davis, and Lionel W. Johnson, New Hampshire’s first African American to serve in our state Legislature for eight terms. Johnson owned and operated Manchester’s Fashion Cleaners for almost 40 years. With the support of former state representative Harvey Keye, among others, they were the driving force behind New Hampshire’s recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
In November of 1984, Ebony Magazine ran a story titled “Blacks in Isolated Areas,” profiling Harvey Keye and family of Nashua, New Hampshire. In 1984, Nashua’s population was approximately 75,000 people, which included roughly 150 to 200 African American families.
Harvey, like many of his contemporaries, was forced to leave the South (Birmingham, Alabama) early in life. Over the course of his career, as the first black salesman for Colgate Palmolive, Harvey moved 13 times in 18 years from Ohio, Upstate New York and ultimately to Nashua. Harvey later became the owner of a medical supply company and was eventually elected to the state Legislature for two terms. In 1999, during his time in the Legislature, he, alongside his peers, successfully advocated and passed legislation honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a state holiday.
This generation of change agents shaped and created the foundation that allowed the community to grow and develop. Without their example, New Hampshire’s African American community would not be in the position it is today. Their sacrifices paved the way, making it possible for “the bridges” that would soon follow.
Woullard and Brenda Lett landed in Manchester in 1993 when Woullard accepted the position of administrator of the Community Economic Development Program at New Hampshire College (now Southern New Hampshire University). Woullard and Brenda grew up in Chicago and, as young adults, worked as community organizers and community economic development practitioners.
Upon their arrival, Woullard and Brenda took it upon themselves to create a sense of community for their young family of four. They became involved with Manchester’s NAACP chapter. During their time with the NAACP, they worked to expand the organization’s scope and scale. Through a series of small initiatives, they built the social capital and collective consciousness of Manchester’s African American community. These initiatives included New Hampshire’s 8 Women of Color Initiative, NAACP’s 30th Anniversary Dinner (which preceded their Annual Freedom Fund Dinner), the Ujima Collective, the Ujima Collective community group and, most notably, Manchester’s Annual African/Caribbean Festival, which is now the We Are One Festival. Many of these initiatives continue today.
Their community-building efforts took place over two decades, and have served to strengthen and give voice to New Hampshire’s African American community. These community-development activities provided the necessary infrastructure for today’s change agents and were instrumental for our community’s continued growth. Having lived in Manchester for nearly 25 years, I can’t imagine the state without these institutions that many of us, including me, have come to rely on.
During my recent interview with former South Hampton Police Chief Eddie Edwards, he discussed the need to navigate New Hampshire “on his own.” He arrived from Atlanta, Georgia, in 1987 to serve in the US Navy at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Eddie has devoted his life to public service as a former police chief and as a former Republican candidate for the US House and state Senate. Now as a small business owner providing professional law enforcement consulting services, he can appreciate the growth and development of New Hampshire’s African American community.
One of the themes I’ve heard through this series of interviews is the consistent and pervasive bigotry of low expectations.
Jada Keye Hebra of Nashua and her two siblings attended Nashua public school system, where they excelled academically and in their extracurricular activities, but, Jada notes, they were required to consistently prove “we were OK.”
This need to “prove yourself” was true then, just as it is today but Jada says having a small and supportive community during her formative years allowed her to believe she could accomplish whatever she set her mind to. This led to a 25-year career with St. Paul’s School, during which she held positions of increasing responsibility. Today she is the senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer for Southern New Hampshire University.
I asked Jada during our interview, “Would there be a Jada K. Hebra without a Harvey Keye?” and she was quick to respond with a “no,” and is grateful for the example her parents and community set for her and her siblings. Those examples continue to fuel her work today, she says. Jada leads SNHU’s social mobility and opportunity agenda focused on cultivating equity, access and just experiences, fostering a culture of belonging and agency, and advancing learning and development for equity and academic efficacy.
New Hampshire’s “bridge generation” was critical to the growth of New Hampshire’s African American community. Although smaller in numbers during these formative years, had it not been for their perseverance, tenacity and grit, today’s change agents would not have some of the opportunities available today. Like those that came before them, we owe these “bridges” a great deal of respect and gratitude for their individual and collective sacrifice.
Today’s Change Agents
From civil rights actions to Black Lives Matter, today’s change agents are increasingly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Granite State. While the African American demographic profile remains relatively small statewide, the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute reports that Manchester and Nashua are home to half of the New Hampshire population identifying as Black or African American with increases in racial and ethnic diversity across every age group.
As the community continued to grow in numbers, New Hampshire’s young African American change agents were attempting to navigate and thrive in what could be defined as a less than hospitable environment where many young people of color were not expected to succeed. They also were required, like those before them, to persist despite the pervasive nature of low expectations and limited opportunity. This is best exemplified by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights settlement with New Hampshire’s Manchester School District.
The Office of Civil Rights revealed in 2014 that Black and Latino students were disproportionately under-enrolled in the district’s advanced placement (AP) courses. During the 2010-11 school year, the enrollment of Black students was disproportionate to their enrollment in AP courses at two of the three high schools, and the enrollment of Latino students in AP courses was disproportionate to their enrollment at all three high schools.
This story of low expectations continued with one of Manchester’s most notable change agents, Sudi Lett. Sudi landed in Manchester at 9 years old from Chicago, Illinois, and upon arrival — and without being tested — was placed in a remedial reading program. Although Sudi was one of the most prolific readers in his class, the school system’s expectations for students of African descent blinded them to his ability. At that time, Sudi says, there were only 8 to10 African American students in the entire school.
This implicit and sometimes explicit bias extended into middle school, when in sixth grade, Sudi was accused of intimidating his teacher because he refused her demand to kneel before her. These microaggressions and negative interactions continued into his high school years, including when he ran for and successfully became Central High School’s first African American student government president. Sudi went on to attend Tuskegee University, a historically Black university (HBCU), and eventually returned to Manchester to begin his career of service.
At the time of his return, and driven by his negative experience as a high school athlete, Sudi launched the Bishop Elite AAU basketball program, which focused on athletics and academics and nurtured many of the state’s best players. Sudi’s premise was simple: “You’re going to college and basketball is the vehicle.” Sudi coached recreational basketball for more than 10 years as a founding coach of Bishop Elite. Over time, he managed as many as 18 teams and coached hundreds of student athletes. Since Sudi’s tenure ended with Bishop Elite, he has worked as the head coach for the boys’ basketball team at Litchfield’s Campbell High School, and ultimately returned to his alma mater to lead Manchester Central High School’s basketball program.
Sudi’s work with young people does not end with basketball. Like many Granite Staters, Sudi wears multiple hats and is also the youth and education coordinator with Manchester’s Granite State Organizing Project (GSOP), where he works with Young Organizers United (YOU), a group of high school students from various backgrounds dedicated to strengthening multi-issue and multiracial coalitions to overcome ethnic and racial bias, mainly the racially disparate treatment in high schools.
Dr. Marie-Elizabeth Ramas of Hollis moved with her mother and siblings to Hooksett from Dorchester, Massachusetts, when she was 10 years old. The change was at the encouragement of family who had moved to New Hampshire the previous year.
As a woman of Haitian descent growing up in Dorchester, Marie-Elizabeth had never identified as “Black.” Then, while visiting her new school in Hooksett, a young lady stood up during class to proclaim, “Look, it’s a Black girl.” Marie-Elizabeth and her family eventually moved to Manchester, where she attended Parkside Middle School and West High School, graduating at the top of her class. Like Sudi Lett, she participated in student government in Manchester West High School’s Student Government Association even while being constantly reminded she was not expected to succeed.
This willful indifference fueled Marie-Elizabeth’s desire to succeed academically and, at the age of 12, her desire to become a family physician. She, like those who preceded her, was not expected to excel, but she went on to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis and with a medical degree from Ohio’s Case Western University.
Upon graduation, Marie-Elizabeth completed her medical residency at the Lonestar Family Health Center in Texas and then moved to California, where she served as the medical director at Mercy Community Clinic in California before making her way back to New Hampshire.
Recently, Marie-Elizabeth was recognized by the Union Leader as a “40 Under Forty” honoree, which pays tribute to Granite Staters who make a difference in their communities and professions.
During her interview with the newspaper, Marie-Elizabeth said, “As a family physician who is a woman of color, I recognize the important impact of having such a presence of leadership that reflects the culture and values of those within the community. I have dedicated my career in service to the very communities from which I came, and it brings me profound joy to advocate for, and alongside, these hardworking families through my various roles.”
To be clear, representation matters, and as New Hampshire’s communities of color continue to grow, today’s change agents, like Dr. Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, Sudi Lett, Deo Mwano, Dr. Larissa Baia, Jordan Thompson, Arnold Mikolo and Dr. Trini Telez (and others whose stories deserve to be told), will pave the way just like the “old heads” and the “bridge builders” who preceded them.
What the Future Holds
Though New Hampshire remains far less diverse than much of America, diversity is growing here. Recent US Census data demonstrate the numbers of foreign-born and nonforeign-born communities of color in the state are increasing. The New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute (NHFPI) reported in their June issue article “Brief Inequities Between New Hampshire Racial and Ethnic Groups Impact Opportunities to Thrive,” “The increase in racial and ethnic diversity is apparent across nearly every age group in NH. While adults aged 18 and over identifying as something other than non-Hispanic white comprise an estimated 8.7% of the population in 2018, children identifying as something other than non-Hispanic white comprised 15.5% of the population under 18 years of age.”
The brief goes on to report that “Manchester and Nashua are more racially and ethnically diverse than the state as a whole,” with these two cities accounting for approximately 15% of New Hampshire’s total population from 2014 to 2018, with these two cities collectively home to half of the New Hampshire population identifying as Black or African American and nearly half the population identifying their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino.
Many demographers expect these trends to continue with New Hampshire’s fastest-growing areas concentrated in the south and central parts of the state. This uneven geographic growth is driven by the continued sprawl of the Boston Metro area, the attraction of recreational areas in Central New Hampshire, and lower natural birth rates across the state. As New Hampshire’s African American and other communities of color continue to grow, so will their collective political, social and economic influence across geography
New Hampshire excels when it fully manifests the potential and possibilities of its residents. Some residents have succeeded despite barriers and missing opportunities. Can we imagine a state where all residents have the chance to gift us with their potential and fulfill their possibilities? The American experience for people of African descent, both in the past and present, has not been like that in New Hampshire or anywhere else in the US. But the message we hear from the Old Heads, Bridges and Today’s Change Agents is one of hope, gratitude and persistence. Those who have made New Hampshire home have contributed to the civic, social and economic fabric of the communities they resided in. The phenomena of society’s blindness to the accomplishments and experience of the African American community in no way diminishes their significance or importance. But it does deprive society of examples of strength and sources of inspiration that reflect the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of New Hampshire residents. The African American experience has been a large part of that unseen and unknown history of the state in the past. Let’s not allow that to be the case in the future.