At the corner of Islington and Middle Streets in downtown Portsmouth are two Federal-style buildings with majestic brick facades. Outside of them is a bright orange sign announcing the Discover Portsmouth Center, operated by the Portsmouth Historical Society. But just below it is a sign that announces another important part of Seacoast history: the home of the Seacoast African American Cultural Center, or SAACC. New Hampshire’s first Black cultural center, SAACC has been sharing and celebrating African American history and culture around the Seacoast for over 20 years.
SAACC hasn’t always lived inside the Discover Portsmouth Center. It started in a small room in City Hall in 2000. The city offered the space to founder Vernis M. Jackson, a Portsmouth educator who moved to the area in 1965 and who had chartered another organization called Kwanzaa with a colleague before this one.
Upon retirement she, along with a coalition of members from various African American organizations in the Seacoast area, founded SAACC, a nonprofit with the mission of celebrating the lives and achievements of African Americans in the Seacoast area and educating about Black arts and culture. Its first exhibit, called “Quilts: The Underground Railroad Connection,” opened in 2002.
But the organization quickly outgrew its space, and Jackson knew it was time to move into bigger quarters when she noticed that their exhibits – and the strew of paper clippings and art supplies that accompanied them during setup and cleanup – started to overwhelm the City Hall space and staff.
“I went to the mayor to ask for a larger space,” she explained in an interview for the podcast Artists of New England. “And I was very emphatic with him, because I had taught him in fourth grade.”
A teacher’s influence made the difference, and SAACC was relocated to a room at the Connie Bean Community Center. But it wasn’t until 2009 that the Discover Portsmouth Center became home.
“I love Discover Portsmouth,” says Casey Golomski, a SAACC board member and anthropology professor at the University of New Hampshire. “The front desk staff really helps us to bring visitors to our Center who come in not knowing we are also here.”
Golomski teaches about and researches health and spirituality in Southern African countries, and joined the board after being a guest curator in 2018 to stage “Guinea to Great Bay: Afro-Atlantic Lives, Culture and History,” a show of African and Oceanic masks and material culture.
Since joining, he has helped host a number of exhibits in collaboration with his SAACC colleagues and a healthy staff of volunteers. “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” in 2020 featured internationally recognized photos of the Obama presidency by renowned White House photographer Pete Souza. “Fashion Forward: Africana Style” in 2021 featured photos from Vogue Fashion Book of the Year awardee Tariq Zaidi. And “We the People: The Fight for Justice in White Suburbia” in 2021 showed photos from the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests throughout New Hampshire, and was curated by SAACC board member and Portsmouth Assistant Mayor Jo Kelley.
This last exhibit was particularly notable, Golomski explains, because it showed “how the people of New Hampshire, one of the whitest states in the nation, showed up for their minoritized neighbors.”
Celebrating and uplifting Black voices, art, culture and history in a state like New Hampshire has come a long way, but it still has a ways to go. With enough financial and volunteer support, SAACC plans to continue to tell stories for years to come.
“As a public educator to the people of New Hampshire, I want the people of our state to be open and willing to hear the stories of their fellow neighbors and citizens, which SAACC does through our shows and programs,” Golomski says. “Much of the legislation in our state that’s come out in recent years around what and what not to teach about race has left educators like me in a bind and many of our Black and other community members of color feeling effectively silenced. Racist actions and talk happen today in New Hampshire, and we must be willing to hear, see and talk about it if we are going to make this a state where everyone can be free.”
Past exhibits at SAACC
SAACC is located at 10 Middle Street in Portsmouth, and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. For more information call (603) 430-6027 or go to www.saacc-nh.org.
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