Portsmouth Locale Hero: Vernis Jackson
About this series: Meet our Local Heroes, a special band of folks dedicating their lives to making things even better in the great Granite State places they have chosen to live and work and play.
If the City of Portsmouth is viewed as one of the most diverse communities in New Hampshire today, Vernis Jackson may have planted the first seeds 60 years ago.
Through her community advocacy and ability to use education and conversation to bring people together, those seedlings yielded the Seacoast African-American Cultural Center and the African Burying Ground Memorial Park in Portsmouth.
“I am a talker,” Jackson says. “And in talking and talking all of the time, I just convinced other people that these things should be done.”
Originally from Savannah, Georgia, where her daughters reside, Jackson first came to Portsmouth in 1963 when her
husband, Emerald, a member of the Air Force, was transferred to the former Pease Air Force Base.
Moving during the winter, Jackson says the cold air and snow came as a culture shock. “When I came here, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do? There is nothing to do for me,’” Jackson recalls. “The African-American community was scant.”
She decided that if she wanted to create community that would bring Black people together, “I had to make my own place.”
Jackson taught second and fourth graders in the Portsmouth public schools for 38 years. One of her students was Tom Ferrini, who would later become a Portsmouth mayor and help her create the Seacoast African-American Cultural Center in its present home inside the Discover Portsmouth Welcome Center.
Jackson organized Kwanza, the first chartered African-American women organization in New Hampshire, in 1974. Jackson says the Kwanza chapter started giving scholarships to African-American students for college. They also brought speakers and introduced other programs to spur interest in Black culture. Jackson says they decided to include men in their group, so they could do a wider variety of activities like art exhibits.
“One time we had this exhibit of African kings and queens that was sponsored by Budweiser,” Jackson says. “It was a national exhibit of photographs and other kinds of things that involved history of African kings and queens. It was a really, really great exhibit. I wish we could do it again.”
The exhibit was held at the former Connie Bean Community Center on Daniel Street. At the time, Jackson says she was working with the city to find a permanent location for SAACC. The cultural center was created in 2000 at what was then the former Portsmouth Public Library on Middle Street, the present home of the Discover Portsmouth Welcome Center.
Jackson says the creation of the African Burying Ground Memorial Park began by accident in 2003 when a construction crew unearthed the remains of the graves of 13 African slaves. Former Portsmouth Mayor Evelyn Sirrell asked Jackson to chair a committee to create a memorial park, which opened in 2015.
Jackson, who is now 90, beams when she reflects on such accomplishments.
“I don’t know how to even feel about it,” Jackson says. “It is just something down deep inside that makes me so proud. It is a really great feeling. I know I had really worked with kids in the community and I just loved doing that. Even today I wish I could be back in the classroom. My life has been beautiful.”
Jackson is pleased at the increased diversity in Portsmouth and New Hampshire compared to when she first arrived in the Granite State.
“There was a void here and, in some kind of way, I helped to fill that void,” Jackson says. “I am very, very happy about that.”