Earlier this year, “The Embrace” sculpture was unveiled on Boston Common to celebrate the moment when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, embraced after learning that Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Certainly, traveling to Boston to view this piece of art makes for a great DEI road trip, but there are also many historical sites and markers that honor New Hampshire’s Black history that are worth visiting as well.
The Black Heritage Trail of NH (BHTNH) offers a self-guided tour for people who want to explore sites around Portsmouth. Here, African American history lives on through the organizational and artistic efforts of Granite State residents. The BHTNH website is a great resource to study the map and read about the significance of each location.
Here are a few historic markers and sites worth exploring in Portsmouth and beyond.
Portsmouth, Birthplace of NH Black History
As early as 1645, enslaved Africans were known to have been part of the Portsmouth community. Records show Portsmouth merchants participated in the slave trade in the 1680s, where male children and young men were sold from ships or on the dockside at what is Prescott Park today.
African slaves were part of the city’s most famous families. This included the households of leading citizens such as William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Gov. John Langdon and Gov. John Wentworth. The 1775 census showed the city and surrounding Seacoast communities included 656 enslaved Africans.
The African Burying Ground Memorial Park, dedicated in 2015, is one of the most well-known Black history sites. In 2003, a construction crew unearthed the graves of 13 enslaved Africans. The city created the park to honor them and remember this aspect of the city’s history.
On the corner of Pearl and Hanover streets, a marker displayed on the side of the building known as “The Pearl” shows where New Hampshire’s first Black church was situated. The People’s Baptist Church was founded in 1915 and remained in that location until 1968. A young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached there in 1952 during the infancy of the Civil Rights Movement.
A short walk away is the Seacoast African American Cultural Center, housed in the Portsmouth Discovery Center. It contains art exhibits and information about the Seacoast’s rich African American history.
Literally everywhere you go to explore Portsmouth’s history, important currents of Black history are intertwined.
Just Across the River – Black Yankees
Kittery, Maine’s early African residents used their own traditions of resilience and mutual aid to establish one of Maine’s earliest African American communities. Black people lived here from colonial slavery times to the present. A marker lies just beyond the Memorial Bridge in John Paul Jones Memorial Park.
Ona Marie Judge Staines: Live Free or Die
In 2022, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill that declared May 21 as Ona Marie Judge Day. It honors the day in 1796 when Ona Maria Judge Staines left the residence of George and Martha Washington in Philadelphia and boarded a ship to Portsmouth. She lived the remainder of her life in New Hampshire free but a fugitive. A marker to remember Staines sits in Greenland along the shores of Great Bay. In Portsmouth, a mural honoring Staines has been commissioned for the wall of the Court St. headquarters of the NH Black Heritage Trail.
Prince Whipple and the Revolutionary War
Prince Whipple was a slave owned by William Whipple. At the Whipple House, a marker honors Prince Whipple and the life he lived. Visitors can learn about him (and the other Portsmouth slaves who joined him) in signing the Petition of Freedom, in which slaves requested their freedom from the New Hampshire General Assembly in 1779. Prince Whipple had firsthand knowledge of the debates for Independence and played a role in the NH militia. Prince Whipple’s wife, Dinah, established the First Ladies African Charitable School.
Frederick Douglas Spoke Here
The Abolitionist movement that led up to the Civil War was keenly felt in New Hampshire with its share of supporters and detractors. On at least one occasion, Frederick Douglas visited and spoke in the Town of Pittsfield.
It was 1842 and Douglas was 25 years old. He gave his lectures at the Pittsfield Meeting House and did not receive much of a reception. Between his first and evening lecture, Douglas sat on a stone wall in the rain. No one offered him shelter until U.S. Rep. Moses Norris took pity on him and invited him to his home.
In the Shadow of Mount Monadnock
In the Monadnock Valley, Black history day-trippers can learn about two African Americans who called Hancock and Milford home. Here are their stories.
A Famous Author in Milford
Harriet Wilson, a New Hampshire African American woman, was the first Black person of any gender to publish a novel. “Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black,” was published in 1859.
Born a free person of color in New Hampshire, Wilson was orphaned while young and bound until the age of 18 as an indentured servant. She struggled to make a living after that, marrying twice. Her only son, George, died at the age of 7 in the poor house where she had placed him out of desparation while trying to survive as a widow. Wilson was later associated with the Spiritualist church and gave public lectures about her life. A statue honoring Wilson is in Milford.
A Short Hike to Jack’s Pond in Hancock
Nestled below the summits of Mount Skatutakee and Thumb Mountain in Hancock, Jack’s Pond is a remote place. It is named after Jack, a formerly enslaved man who became free and lived near the pond between the late 1700s and his death in 1826. The pond and surrounding land is now protected and managed by the Harris Center for Conservation Education.
Here, visitors can learn about Jack’s close connection to the Due family. James and Hannah Due, along with their children, Elliot and Betsey, lived on land they purchased in Hancock from the 1780s to the 1850s. They gave Jack his land, so he could live as a free man.
603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.