New Film Explores Portsmouth's Past

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

“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 blackhistorynh.org.) 

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