African American History in
New Hampshire

Click here for your FREE
weekly newsletter! (And
get 12 FREE desktop

Bring the heart of
New Hampshire into your
home with beautiful,
affordable, high-quality
New England prints.
Visit our
New Hampshire Gallery

Visit our
Marketplace for
everything New England!

More Travel Info:
New Hampshire
The Heart of New England
The Place Her People Made
Researcher Follows the Trail of African-American History in New Hampshire
by Phyllis Ring

Valerie Cunningham's research is the kind that's bound to set certain
myths on their ear. There's the myth that African Americans “just
appeared” in the New Hampshire Seacoast region in recent decades.

Not even close. The year 1645 is the earliest in which this researcher has
found evidence of their lives -- so far.

Another assumption is that during that time, most of the residents of color
in this freedom-loving state “weren't t really slaves.”

“There's little question about whether it was slavery or not,” Valerie says.
“The fact that people lived in the house with their masters and often
worked side-by-side with them would give the impression that slavery
was OK, perhaps, or at least a lot different.”

It wasn't. People of color were still considered property, were often
mistreated, and family members were routinely sold away from each
other, she says.

A Painstaking 30 Year Search

This researcher’s painstaking 30-year search for the presence of her people
led to the establishment last year of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, a
self-guided walking and driving tour that encompasses four centuries of
African-American history in the New Hampshire Seacoast area.

Woven through its 40 sites is the evidence that African-Americans here
raised generations of family, built community, founded institutions, and
served their town, state and nation in many capacities.

The Trail’s resources are documented in a curriculum/resource book that
Valerie prepared along with Mark Sammons, Director of Education and
Research at Portsmouth’s Strawbery Banke Museum.

As it brings a more complete local history to schools and cultural centers
across a region long associated with Early-American history, the Trail is
also broadening the perspective of the tens of thousands of visitors that
choose Portsmouth as a vacation destination each year.

New Hampshire Black History: A Curiosity

Raised in Portsmouth, where she was born 61 years ago, Valerie
emphasizes that her work is not an attempt to trace her own roots, which
originated elsewhere.

Instead, it grew out of curiosity that arose during her high-school years,
when she began asking questions for which she couldn't find answers.

“I was growing up at a time when black history was not taught. What I
learned, I learned from my family and the Black church,” she says.

The history she did get in school included visits to historic houses in
Portsmouth, where she learned how important the city was during
Colonial times.

“I became curious about what, if any, African Americans had been in the
Portsmouth area. It was sort of a kick to even think about whether there
were Black Colonists.”

First Step: Portsmouth NH

Her first research was in early records in Portsmouth. Because churches
insisted that everyone be baptized, she says, these records were fairly
complete, not so much with information about the person, other than first
name, the name of the white owner and a date that verified that the Black
person had existed and had been a slave.

“At the time, I didn't know what I was doing -- just trying to find out
whether Black people had lived in Portsmouth, filling up notebooks with
names and dates, proving that yes, they had been here,” says Valerie.

Their presence raised more questions: How did they get there? Where did
they go? What was the master/slave relationship like?

She combed through county probate records of slaves passing from master
to widow or children; newspaper advertisements offering rewards for
runaways; or the sale of slaves, including those brought in by ship and
sold at the dock in Portsmouth.

“I began to connect some of the names and realize that there were families,
generations, to be identified,” she says. The difficulty of her task was
compounded by the fact that enslaved peoples' names usually changed
with the transfer of ownership. Plenty of “good White folks” names were
among the names of those African Americans she found.

An Amazing NH Document

In 1779, 19 slaves in Portsmouth wrote a petition to the state Legislature
asking that it put an end to slavery. Valerie calls it “quite an amazing
document,” adding that there were several like it from various New
England states.

Law required that it be published, and the New Hampshire Gazette
complied, with the addition of an editorial disclaimer at the top that
proclaimed it only for the readers' “amusement” The state never acted on
it, she notes.

Free persons of color, though rare, did exist in the area. Valerie found
evidence of one through a record of his having purchased another black
man in order to free him. Those who were free were always at risk of being
kidnapped off the street and sold into slavery, she says.

One of the earliest records she found documents an instance in which an
owner was instructed to return a slave he had purchased in Boston.

“That slave was among a group that had been kidnapped when an African
village was raided and burned on the Sabbath, with a several hundred
people killed,” Valerie says. “THAT was the crime, of course, that it
occurred on that particular day,” so a court ordered that the New
Hampshire slave be returned, supposedly for transportation back to
Africa. “Whether he was actually returned or not, no one knows,” she says.

Revolutionary War: End to Slavery in NH

The Revolutionary War, in which black soldiers filled military vacancies,
though barred from enlisting, brought an end to slavery in New
Hampshire, she says.

Among the most notable of New Hampshire’s African-American
Revolutionary soldiers was Prince Whipple of Portsmouth, who is
believed to be depicted with General George Washington in the famous
painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Prince and a cousin
were originally sent to America by Prince’s wealthy father to attend
university but were kidnapped en route and sold into slavery.

Valerie notes that, while a soldier fighting with Washington in the
Revolutionary War, Prince Whipple reportedly challenged his master,
“You are going to fight for your liberty, but I have none to fight for.” It
would be another seven years before he finally gained his freedom.

Eventually, Valerie says, the abolitionist movement was built on the early
efforts of freed blacks whom she describes as “on the front lines, pushing
and risking a lot to put an end to slavery.”

Women's Role

Women played their part, too, she says, organizing local groups for the
huge task of helping those African Americans newly freed from slavery.
Ester Whipple Mulleneaux, daughter of Prince Whipple, took a leading
role in this task in New Hampshire.

“These women helped provide education, clothing, jobs and learning
skills,” Valerie says, “and really established the first models for what has
become the welfare system that we know today.”

The researcher stopped tracing records at around the year 1830 for two
reasons: There were virtually no more African-American slaves by that
time, and abolition was on the rise, making it less common for people to
be identified by color in records, she says.

Valerie is now bridging back to that time period
via oral histories she has been taking from older
African American residents of Portsmouth.
“I didn’t want their stories, their strengths
and dignity in the face of all they had to deal
with, to be lost,” she says.

These are among her favorite aspects of her work,
since many of the interview subjects were people
who played a significant role in her life as she grew up in a community
with few African-Americans. “They mentored me, inspired me. I didn't
want them to die without seeing this story told and contributing to it,” she

Persistence & Hope

Part of what touched her in these stories was the persistence and
hopefulness of that generation, born prior to WWI era, and their lack of
bitterness. “They had inherited from parents and grandparents who had
witnessed the realities of enslavement, that they would have an equal
chance to achieve the American dream through hard work and good
character,” Valerie describes. “While none complained about the life they
had, each was in fact proud of his and her family and longevity and
achieving what they considered to be a good life, they realized that their
world of opportunities had been restricted by their race.”

In addition to capturing centuries-old history, sites on the Portsmouth
Black Heritage Trail also recount more modern-day stories like that of
Rosary B. Cooper. When World War II produced a labor shortage at home,
this intrepid woman climbed high into the sky to become one of the nation’
s first woman crane operators at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Although facts and dates and places are important, Valerie’s perseverance
to find history’s “missing persons” has really been a search for stories like
these – ones that show how history is often made up of the stuff of
everyday lives, she says.

Recently, she retired from her position as administrative secretary at the
University of New Hampshire's counseling center to devote more time to
her research and the work of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.

Her home state has honored her efforts with its annual Martin Luther King
Jr. Award and, more recently, a University of New Hampshire President's
Award of Excellence. The best reward of all, she says, is that people of all
races are now embracing the black history she has uncovered as a part of
everyone’s story.

More information about Valerie Cunningham and the Portsmouth Black
Heritage Trail are available by visiting

About the Author:

New Hampshire writer Phyllis Ring has published articles and essays in a
variety of magazines including Christian Science Monitor, Delicious
Living, Hope, Ms., and Yankee. More information about her current
writing projects can be seen at
Phyllis Ring
Valerie Cunningham, left
Generations of African Americans have raised families in New Hampshire
The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
©The Heart of New England online magazine
...celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont!
Contact| The Heart of New England HOME | Search

Click Here to Get Your FREE Weekly Newsletter Today!