Portsmouth African Burying Ground

Portsmouth African Burying Ground

Since 2003, the city of Portsmouth, NH, has been engaged in a project to honor a colonial era African cemetery. The long-hidden burying ground was unearthed by a utility crew working on Chestnut Street, a downtown strip located between State and Court Streets.

The 12-year enterprise was completed in May, 2015; by coincidence, it was just in time for the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. (The 13th amendment to the Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865.) I visited Portsmouth in December to pay respect to its African past.

Portsmouth African

Photo by Tamela Ambush

What the utility crew uncovered were aged caskets of a segregated cemetery. The discovery resulted in an archeological excavation of 13 caskets and forensic testing of human remains. The site is only the second authenticated – by genetic testing and historic research – African burial ground in the country.*

In colonial times, the Chestnut Street area was pasture land on the outskirts of town. City records document that Africans used the site as a “Negro Burying Yard” as early as 1705 with the last recorded interment in 1800.

Some 200 souls are believed to be buried there though little is known about them. Forensic tests of the remains found that the deceased were about 20 years of age, and one was about 12 years.

info plague

Photo by Tamela Ambush

Africans were brought to the maritime colony as early as 1645 to work as slave labor. By 1767, about 187 Africans resided there – about four percent of its 4,450 population – in the status of slave and free. (See the upcoming essay on “Slavery in Portsmouth.”)

In 2004, Portsmouth leaders established the African Burying Ground Committee to plan a commemoration. It embarked on a $1.2 million fundraising campaign to develop the memorial park. The site is a graceful tribute smartly embedded within the flow of residential activity.

mother africaArtist Jerome Meadows of Meadowlark Studios in Savannah, GA, designed the memorial. The entrance features a granite wall sculpture with two life-sized figures in bronze. On one side of the wall is a woman representing Mother Africa; on the other is a man representing the African in Portsmouth.

It leads to a walkway along a “Petition Line” with phrases from a 1779 petition to the NH General Assembly by 20 Africans demanding freedom. Homes that border the park host small informational plagues as well.

Photo by Tamela Ambush

The park winds to a burial vault lid marked by the Sankofa symbol. Under the vault lay the re-interred remains of the Africans. The Sankofa stands for a traditional West African concept of revisiting the past to learn what is at risk of being forgotten.

The park ends with life-sized bronze silhouettes representing the community of Portsmouth. There is a decorative railing embedded with ceramic tiles inspired by West African designs and created by school children. The drawings show the desire of the youngsters to “stand in honor of those forgotten.”

* The first African burial ground was discovered in New York City in 1991. A construction crew demolishing a federal government building in lower Manhattan unearthed the remains of 419 Africans. The site is now recognized as the African Burial Ground National Monument.

Roger House is Associate Professor of American Studies at Emerson College and producer of Victory Stride.

References

Portsmouth African Burial Ground Committee. “Stand in Honor of Those Forgotten.”(pdf ): african bury ground report

Deborah McDermott. “Slaves Live in Memory.” (pdf): portsmouth african bury ground article

Jerome Meadows, artist, Meadowlark Studios, Savannah, GA: http://www.meadowlarkstudio.blogspot.com