Excerpt from Yankee Magazine February 1999
It is 1968, and in the dark back room of St. John’s Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a young black woman is seated at a small table, bent over church records. This is not the beginning of Valerie Cunningham’ s search, but it is the beginning of her success. As she runs her finger down the yellowed page, which records various births and baptisms in, as well as contributions to, that church during the year 1807, she stops at this entry: “Contribution Xmas day, Venus — a Black — $1.”
The name Venus: She knew she had encountered this before. She turned back the pages of her notebook and scanned her notes. Back a few pages, she found the connector, an entry she had copied earlier from the same church records. Baptism in 1747 of Venus, child of Dorcas Bradford. She had written that down because of the name, Venus, which she thought might be the name of a slave child. This 1807 entry seemed to confirm that.
Even when she first encountered it, Valerie knew that the name Venus was likely that of a slave, since names of this sort — neither African nor Christian — were often given by whites to separate the enslaved from both their African families as well as from proper society. So she could be reasonably certain that Venus was a slave. But the fact that Venus did not have a last name meant that Venus was no longer in the household of a white slave owner. Valerie knew then that Venus had been freed. And so here was Venus, alive in 1807, a freed slave in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, receiving the generous contribution of one dollar, no small sum in those days.
It was just a smidgen of knowledge, that seven-word entry in the otherwise voluminous records of that church, but for Valerie it was a huge triumph, an affirmation of all that she had begun when she started looking for the hidden history of the black people of that port city.
“Now that I had found Venus, that meant I had to keep going,” Valerie says now. Now in her late fifties, Valerie Cunningham has never stopped looking. Since that small moment, when she was married and the mother of a toddler and an infant daughter, Valerie has acquired enough such information to fill a 260-page three-ring binder and to guide those interested on a walking tour that leads around Portsmouth to 40 different sites — from the place where slave auctions were held to the house where a freed slave once lived. The book and the tour, both called The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, are the culmination of nearly a lifetime spent in search of what it’ s all about for the minority of blacks who live and work in Portsmouth.
In the years that she has been looking, she has discovered that some 659 slaves lived and worked in the Portsmouth area between the years 1645 and 1800. “Slavery was never abolished in New Hampshire,” she says matter-of-factly. “The 13th amendment took care of that. Still, other New England states adopted resolutions about slavery, but New Hampshire never put it into writing. It is that ‘Live Free or Die’ attitude, whatever that means!” she says with a knowing laugh.
Valerie’s research rested in her notebook until she met Mark Sammons, the former director of research at Strawbery Banke. Soon after Mark came to Portsmouth in 1989, he heard about Valerie. He read a short article she had published about black history and also went to hear her speak. He was impressed and had wanted to meet her, but it was Valerie who eventually approached him with her idea of putting together a brochure and walking tour. With this in mind, in 1995 Mark wrote an application for a grant that would enable him to explore the city’ s black history. Under the auspices of this grant, Mark and Valerie began work on their brochure.
“Our work extended far beyond the scope of that grant,” Mark says. “It became a labor of love for both of us. We would have meetings that would turn into six-hour marathon sessions — there was so much to put together of what she had discovered over the years.” They eventually found an intern to work with them, and when they were done, “We found that we didn’ t have a brochure any more. “Out of their work came the trail and the book, which is now in every school in the city as well as on reserve at the Portsmouth Library.
Valerie is a strong-looking woman with kind, cinnamon eyes, light skin the color of coffee and cream, and a cloud of russet hair. It is a breezy warm day, and we are sitting at an outdoor cafe in Portsmouth’s Market Square. Across the street, the great soaring steeple of North Church rises above us, and young well-dressed men and women mingle on the brick sidewalk. The air is full of the rich smell of coffee and sweet pastries. It is lunchtime, and everyone has come out to sample the warm air and the good food. A shiny red-black-and-yellow trolley trundles by — ding-ding! — and the tourists on board lean this way and that as they survey the historic buildings all around. It is a happy, prosperous scene that shows a Portsmouth transformed. Two centuries before this moment, just steps from where we are sitting, Negroes were publicly flogged. Valerie, the only black person in sight, is likely the only person present in this busy scene who is aware of this wild contrast.
Valerie Cunningham was born and grew up in Portsmouth, where she graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1959. She was the only child of Clarence and Augusta Cunningham, who came to Portsmouth from, respectively, North Carolina and Virginia. Growing up black in the 1940s and 1950s in Portsmouth was different from, say, growing up black in North Carolina, but it was not devoid of pain. “We saw it all on television, the civil-rights struggles that were going on down South,” Valerie recalls. The racial obstacles that Valerie encountered in Portsmouth were muted but nonetheless present. “It wasn’t as if people went around calling me ‘nigger.’ It was much more subtle than that,” she says now. “And the Ku Klux Klan was active here at that time.”
She credits her parents and the small but tightly knit black community for guiding her into the person she is today. Though she has traveled widely — her husband, from whom she is now divorced, was in the Air Force, and they lived on bases all over the country and in Guam and the Philippines — Portsmouth is Valerie’s choice of where she wants to live. She knows the city intimately, its every layer of history.
“Portsmouth was a nice place to grow up,” she concludes. “My mother is a smart woman. She wanted to be sure that I knew that I was black. She is fair-skinned and can pass [for white], but she knew that wasn’ t what it was all about. She wanted me to understand what it means to be black, what our heritage is, and who we are.”
In high school, Valerie worked at the library every minute of her spare time — afternoons, weekends, summers. She liked being in a place where it was quiet and information could be discovered. At the time, Dorothy Vaughn was the head librarian. Dorothy Vaughn spearheaded the efforts to preserve Strawbery Banke, the city’ s impressive historic district.
But what was the history of the blacks of Portsmouth, the young Valerie began to wonder. Even though blacks have represented only one percent of the population of New Hampshire for more than 200 years, Portsmouth was different. As much as five percent of its population is black, a figure that held true in Colonial times as well. She knew that in her church, a vigorous community of Portsmouth blacks, there was an oral history that was very much alive. But where was this written down? And if it wasn’t, why wasn’t it?
Valerie’s hunger for this information did not diminish. It grew. After she married into the Air Force, Valerie got used to moving and finding what she could of the history of her people. About a year before she found Venus, Valerie found a book that legitimized her search. Browsing in the back stacks at a library in Delaware, where her husband was then stationed, she came across a book called The Negro in Colonial New England. “That was the first book on black history I had ever found. It told me for sure that there had been slavery in New England, and it specifically mentioned Portsmouth.” In her long journey she had taken one very important step.
Whenever she came home to Portsmouth, on leave or else for brief stints at Pease Air Force Base, Valerie would ask her mother to take care of her children, and she would return to her task. Her early work at the library had taught her how to research things, and she learned of other sources for early history, such as the records at old churches and in city hall. Valerie needed only to have the door cracked and she was inside, scouring the records, searching and searching for those unusual names. In time she found Cesar, and she found Prince, and she found Pharaoh, Quam, Cato, Nero, Romeo, names almost cruelly inappropriate. She wrote it all in longhand in her growing notebook.
Eventually she went further into the stacks, into the old newspapers, which were stored on microfilm. Turning the crank and peering at the gauzy screen, she flipped by page after page of the New Hampshire Gazette. There she found ads for runaway slaves. These gave her physical descriptions, which thrilled her — to have these people, to whom she now felt wed, become more than just names, more than just the property of a white man.
In the May 11, 1764, edition of the New Hampshire Gazette, she found this ad: Ran-away — Negro Boy named Fortune, age 16, wearing a red jacket and canvas trousers.
Based on the information Valerie had gathered, Mark Sammons wrote this in The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail: “We will never know what incident triggered Fortune’s departure, perhaps an argument, a scolding, or a blow like that delivered a dozen years earlier to the ship’s captain’s slave. But the underlying cause was the condition and nature of enslavement. The tasks at the tavern may seem routinely domestic, but slavery was never benign. While white youths were formulating visions of their future, Fortune had few choices in life and little hope of improved status.”
This reading of the old Gazettes on microfilm was a hypnotic task that absorbed Valerie so thoroughly that one night she was locked into the library. “The custodian found me late that night. It’s so quiet back where I was working that they didn’t know I was there. And I didn’t know what time it was.”
Valerie notes in her book that running away in 1764 left the unhappy slave with little choice and few places to go. “The 13 colonies combined had only a few thousand free blacks, with no community large enough for a runaway to disappear into.” Aside from that one ad, Valerie found no more references to Fortune. She felt a kinship with each slave she discovered: “I always had a hard time when I read about the children being taken from their mothers. That still is hard for me to read about.”
Without records of births or deaths, marriages or baptisms, slaves were an invisible presence, easily forgotten. In her search through the old newspapers, Valerie found many ads for runaways. “It’s ironic that that was one way they made themselves known to me, through these ads or through something else that would make the newspaper. Otherwise there were no records of them at all. Unless they misbehaved, they simply were not accounted for.”
The ads offered her clues she did not expect. For instance, she was struck by the colorful clothing the slaves wore. Cromwell, aged 45, who ran away from Henry Sherburne Jr., wore a blue cloth coat and breeches, and a scarlet cloth jacket with metal buttons. Jean Paul, a French Creole, who ran away in 1764, wore an earring, a red handkerchief on his head or in his pocket, a blue jacket, striped overalls, and large buckles on his half-boots. Scipio, who ran away from James Dwyer of Portsmouth in 1793, sounds exotically dapper. He was described as wearing a “Saxon blue Frize jacket Lin’d with baize, slash sleeves and small metal buttons, a brown Fustian jacket without sleeves, a pair of scarlet everlasting breeches.” The colorful attire, the earrings and buckles, all indicated to Valerie that the slaves may not have retained their African names, but they retained their African love of color and style. “A lot of the slave owners would give their old clothes to the slaves and be surprised to find that they would use the colors so differently, combining stripes and plaids.”
Valerie grew up in a house just steps from Stoodley’s Tavern, one of the showpieces of Strawbery Banke. Stoodley’s Tavern was known as a place where Paul Revere had stopped in 1774 to announce the news that the British were on their way from Boston to New Castle, an announcement that prompted the sole military action of the American Revolution on New Hampshire soil.
In her research, much of which is now used by Strawbery Banke, Valerie discovered that Stoodley’s Tavern had a darker history. Just ten years earlier, the building had been the site of public slave auctions. She found several dozen advertisements in Portsmouth newspapers that read like this one: To be sold at public vendue at the house of Mr. James Stoodley, Innholder in Portsmouth, on Wednesday the seventh day of July . . . three Negro men and a Boy. The conditions of the sale will be cash or good merchantable items.
Ironically it was in Mark Sammons’s former office on the second floor of the now restored Stoodley’ s Tavern that he and Valerie collaborated on the creation of The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. Through this work with Valerie, Mark came to know that this famous tavern was not only the place where Paul Revere came, but it was also the place where Frank and Flora, both slaves, helped to unload the ships for the auctions, which included their young compatriots from Africa. Mark deeply admires Valerie’s contribution to Portsmouth’ s unusual history, still emerging. “She is a community treasure,” he says. “She not only has the gift, but she shares it.”
Across from Stoodley’s Tavern was the wharf, where the young Africans were brought in. “Often they were sold right off the boat,” Valerie explained. “Most households in Portsmouth accommodated only one or two slaves, which accounts for the fact that slave ships did not, as a rule, dock in Portsmouth. Instead, the Africans came as part of another shipment, cotton or rum or sugar. Often merchants would put in an order for a slave to outgoing sea captains, and so, when they were in West Africa buying other goods, they would kidnap a few children to take back with them. Most households preferred to have the slaves come in as youngsters, old enough and strong enough to be useful but still young enough to be trained in the way they wanted them.
“A lot of people seem to think that slavery in Portsmouth, or in New England, was somehow more benign than slavery in the South. They will say to me, ‘You don’t mean real slavery, do you?’ Of course. Slavery was slavery, and there is no indication that the slaves who lived and worked in Portsmouth were any better treated than they were elsewhere.”
Aside from the public floggings, which were common enough, Valerie discovered that in 1695 Nathaniel Keen of Kittery, Maine, beat his slave woman to death and was charged with murder. But afterward the charge was reduced to cruelty, and Keen was released after paying a fine.
Valerie’s quest was not so much to find such injustices, though there were many to be found. Her quest was to find the past, the past in whatever form. One of her most important finds came while searching the microfilm. Inside a paper dated November 12, 1779, she came across a petition, signed by a group of 20 Portsmouth slaves, including Prince Whipple.
The petition read, in part: that through ignorance and brutish violence of their native countrymen, and by the sinister designs of others . . . and by the avarice of both, they, while but children . . . were seized, imprisoned, and transported from their native country, where they were born free, to a country where they are compelled to drag on their lives in miserable servitude. Thus, often is the parent’s cheek wet for the loss of a child, torn by the cruel hand of violence from her aching bosom; thus, often and in vain is the infant’ s sigh for the nurturing care of its bereaved parent, and thus do the ties of nature and blood become victims to cherish the vanity and luxury of a fellow mortal. Can this be right? Forbid it, gracious heaven.
The petition was presented to the governor of New Hampshire and the state legislators, and the Gazette was required by law to print the slaves’ plea for their freedom. However, at the end of the petition, the editor of the Gazette had seen fit to add his disclaimer: for the amusement of the reader.
“It made me sick, when I read that,” Valerie says now. “It made me angry and furious, but most of all it made me sick. I knew what was happening at that time, so it wasn’t really a surprise, but I was deep enough into this history to know that these were real men, and this was their sincere plea. And they were living in a time when white men had just finished a war for independence, and these slaves wanted their own independence as well. And they were being laughed at.”
She copied the petition by hand into her notebook, her only recourse at the time.
Perhaps this petition had more of an effect than the editor had hoped, perhaps other factors prevailed upon the powers of the time to see that slavery was wrong. Valerie’ s research shows that the last slave was recorded in the U.S. Census in New Hampshire in 1840, though the custom of slavery had pretty much died out early in that century.
It is a shadowy, one-dimensional history that Valerie has brought forth, but a history just the same. Perhaps it will never be anything but vague. She would give anything to see photographs, diaries, or something more tangible than single names entered into old records. “I am working with limited information. There is perhaps only so much that I can know.”
There is a serenity about Valerie Cunningham. She has an almost regal countenance as she moves about Portsmouth, her sandaled feet on the solid ground of her native soil. When she speaks of all this, her words bear no bitterness or even anger. She believes it’ s wrong that New Hampshire still does not celebrate Martin Luther King Day, but she knows how time changes things. “It’s going to happen. The state does celebrate the holiday. The only place that doesn’t observe it is the statehouse. There are some legislators who still don’t get it, who don’ t want to get it. But they are not going to be there forever.”
For Valerie the events of the past speak for themselves. She regards history as a tool of self-affirmation that helps her to understand who she is and who she is not. She lives here and sees the past in the present, as if through night-vision goggles. Where the Gap clothing store is now once was the Negro Court, where injustices were tried. Where the rhododendrons now grow beside North Church, black servants were once whipped. Just a block from where the Bank of New Hampshire has its nice brick fence, there was the big Negro cemetery.
When the city was putting in sewer lines, about a hundred years ago, workmen dug up bones, and children went out into the street and played with the bones. These were the bones of some of the slaves who lived in Portsmouth. Perhaps they were the bones of Venus or Prince Whipple. The fact was noted and the construction continued. There are houses there now, on top of the old slave cemetery.
But Valerie does not regard this with anger or defeat. She simply continues doing what she can do. She keeps looking — for Venus, for Fortune, for the past most everyone else would rather forget.