Jerrianne Boggis of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire | Conversations

The executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire has made it her life’s work to share a more complete history of her home state.

By Ian Aldrich

Oct 20 2022


Illustration of JerriAnne Boggis

Photo Credit : Illustration by Palesa Monareng

JerriAnne Boggis’s story is an American story. Born in Jamaica, she came to the United States when she was 17 and eventually settled in New England, where she earned her college degree in computer science and later a master’s in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University. She married, raised two sons, and helped build a business in Portsmouth that now employs half a dozen people.

But Boggis’s story is American in other ways, too. As a Black mother in one of the whitest states in the country, she struggled for years to find connections and a sense of home in a community where so few people looked like her. “Sometimes it could feel like I was the only Black person in the state,” she says. That began to change in 2002, when Boggis discovered the largely forgotten life and work of the 19th-century writer Harriet E. Wilson, North America’s first Black female novelist and a resident of Boggis’s adopted hometown of Milford, New Hampshire. In her novel Our Nig, Wilson draws on her own life to tell the story of a young girl who worked for years as an indentured servant. For Boggis, the discovery of Wilson was a revelation. Suddenly, there was a history and lineage of Black life for her to dig into. “It was like seeing this place where I live with different eyes,” she says.

JerriAnne Boggis at the statue of Harriet E. Wilson, North America’s first Black female novelist, in Milford, New Hampshire.
Photo Credit : Cheryl Senter

And she wanted others to see what she did. In 2006, Boggis cemented Wilson’s legacy by leading efforts for a new downtown Milford monument in the writer’s honor—the state’s first memorial dedicated to a Black resident. Today, Boggis is helping to share more overlooked history as the executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, a nonprofit that honors and promotes the stories of the state’s past Black residents and communities through public events and tours. These are celebrations of sorts, but also lessons in what’s lost when history is told from a single point of view. Many Black residents have left predominantly white states, Boggis says, not because they didn’t want to make a home there, but because they struggled to identify with those places. By fleshing out the past more completely, she argues, maybe those same residents will feel a stronger connection to where they live—much as she herself did.

I recently caught up with Boggis at her home in Milford to talk about her New England journey, as well as the work she and others are doing to expand the scope of how people see this region.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me a little bit about the family and culture you grew up in.

My mother was a high school teacher and my father was a civil servant at the minister of finance’s office. So the family—and there were six of us kids—was very public service oriented. We read a lot. My parents wanted all their kids to be learners, and our education was worldly. We didn’t hear only Jamaican stories—we heard Caribbean stories, British stories, American stories. We knew what was going on in the world.

You’ve said that a strong sense of history was part of your upbringing. How so?

Near the bridge I crossed to go to school was the Sam Sharpe tree. [Sam Sharpe led a slave rebellion in Jamaica in 1831.] That’s where he was hung, and everyone knew that. There was a sign right there. And there were other markers around town that also told about not just the enslavement but the fight for liberation. These were visible representations of the past.

What effect did that have on you?

You see yourself not as the victimized but as the warrior. There is a stability, there’s a grounding, there’s this sense of power in being able to overcome adversity. We knew the story of slavery but we also knew what we overcame to become free. So those words on those plaques became a part of who we are and our world view.

When you came to the U.S. at 17, what was the transition like for you?

When you’re in the majority, you don’t have to think about who you are or how your race fits in with those around you. You’re not an other. That’s what I felt in Jamaica. In the U.S. it was different—I had to prove myself. And I felt like I wasn’t just representing myself but representing my race. Never mind that I’m not actually African-American; many whites just assumed I was.

I started second-guessing myself. I lost my confidence in raising my hand in the classroom to give an answer. What if I say something that’s misunderstood? Because now I’m thinking about how I’m representing all these other people, not just myself. All these calculations add up; you stop putting your hand up and speaking freely.

How did those feelings shape you as the mother of two young boys growing up in a place like southern New Hampshire?

At first I didn’t think much about it. Their father is white, and so early on I thought they had the best of both worlds. They’re not Black, they’re not white, they’re coffee with cream. It was very naïve thinking.

Then when my boys were still young I got a wake-up call. A neighbor’s kid asked one of my sons how he could live with someone who is the N-word. And that’s when I started to immerse them in their Blackness. We started going to New York City, where my sisters and cousins live, like every other weekend. I figured my boys were going to get the white story about themselves just by living here—from their grandparents, from their father, from everything around them. But I also needed to be deliberate in making sure they understood their Blackness.

And then you discover Harriet E. Wilson. How did her story come into focus for you?

That was around 2002. I was in grad school at the time, and the local paper did a story on her. I had seen references to her book but it never dawned on me that it was by someone from New Hampshire. As far as I knew, New Hampshire had no real Black history. But now here is this story about Wilson—and not only that but she also lived in the town where I now live. There was a subsequent article about a teacher who said Wilson’s book was inappropriate for reading in high school, and that got me started on the project with a group of Black women from Nashua.

It almost seems fated.

It did feel fated. You know I was never involved in the town before. I was just a housewife trying to find places where I could belong. I felt a stronger connection to New York, where my family lived. Then I find this story and it’s like, we have a history that goes back to the 1700s. That’s what I grew up with in Jamaica. I could now walk around and say, “Oh, Harriet probably saw a lot of the same houses I’m looking at right now. This is where she stood.” Those kinds of things.

And that helped you feel more at home?

Oh, yeah. It created a connection to a place where I had no connection prior.

Why was it important to establish a monument to Wilson?

Henry Louis Gates had republished her book in 1983, and in 2002 she’d been forgotten again and there was not a single reference to her in the town. Nowhere. So it felt important to put up something permanent and visible. Because if you have a monument, you can’t erase that history again.

The work you did to establish the Wilson monument eventually led to your work at the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. How are the two connected?

People are shocked to find out that New Hampshire has a Black history. I didn’t know Black people lived here. That kind of thing. I was at a gathering at the African Burial Ground [in Portsmouth] and this person turns to me and says, “So all those slaves on their way to Canada were buried there?” On their way to Canada? Are you trying to say they never lived here?

So we’re showing that these communities did live here. They established farms, built businesses, raised families. We are reclaiming that history.

For someone like me, a middle-aged white guy who grew up in New Hampshire, what’s lost when I don’t learn about this history?

Your whole story. We’ve been in touch with the descendants of New Hampshire families who we know owned slaves, and they don’t want to talk about it. There’s a real reluctance to acknowledge that part of their history. What does it mean when you have to erase a part of your own story? It means you’re not accepting of who you are. It means you’re refusing to accept the culture in which we live and the stories of other people.

Now there is a woman whose family owned the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth; it was the home of William Whipple, a Revolutionary War general and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. They were big slave owners and a big part of the slave trade. She’s traced all this history, and today she has an understanding for how her family got to be well-off. Knowing those stories, knowing that history, I think allows you to develop more empathy. You see how a structure was set up to disadvantage one group and give advantage to another. And if you can break down those structures, you may not have a George Floyd incident.

Are you optimistic we can get there?

I have to be.

But there’s been real resistance to some of this work. Last year New Hampshire passed a law that restricts how public school educators can teach or talk about things like racism, sexism, and discrimination. How has that impacted what you do?

You’re talking about the “divisive concepts” bill. It hasn’t really impacted us because we’re a private organization and we don’t rely on state funds. But it has created a chilling effect on teachers because it’s just vague enough that teachers aren’t sure what they can and cannot do. What we’re doing is trying to be more deliberate in creating curriculum or tours that address where a [school group] is in the classroom without sugarcoating history. Some of our tour guides have been hassled on the street. Five years ago I’m not sure that would have happened, but that’s the environment we now live in.

You’ve also been the target of some personal attacks—could you talk a little about that?

This was before Covid. A group of businesses and other organizations got together to see what we could do around diversity, equity, and inclusion in the state. Tucker Carlson got hold of that and said we were trying to change New Hampshire. I received this call from a woman who took it personally that my existence and my telling of these stories was threatening her way of life and her child’s way of life. I had to think about that. It made me understand the fear a little bit more on their side. That she believed so strongly that what we were doing was jeopardizing the privilege her child never asked for. I may not ever be able to reach her, but thinking as a mother trying to protect her child, I could understand that. But it’s not going to stop me from doing the work. Because her kid’s not going to go out and be shot by the police because of their skin color—my kids could be.

Tell me about some of the surprising lives and histories you’ve come across as you’ve built the Black Heritage Trail.

There’s Nancy Prince in Hancock, whose story is fascinating: She ends up in Russia, where she and her husband work for the tsar. Then she goes to Jamaica to work on the liberation movement there. Then she returns to New Hampshire.

Or you have Wentworth Cheswell of Newmarket, who was elected town constable [in 1768], the first Black person to be voted into public office in the whole country. There’s Richard Potter, who’s the first Black magician in the country. And of course there’s Ona Judge [an enslaved woman in George Washington’s household], who defies Washington and escapes to Portsmouth.

The story about Judge certainly counters the idol worship we’ve built around Washington, doesn’t it?

But makes it a fuller story. You see the good and the bad. We’re not creating these myths, or these gods. We’re presenting these people as humans.

What’s the connective tissue among all these stories you’re sharing?

These are all American stories: overcoming adversities, rising to success against all the odds. Those are the hero stories we always want to talk about when we talk about America, except these heroes have Black faces.

For more information about the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, including tours and events, go to