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When last occupied, just before the museum was created in 1958, Penhallow House contained three apartments and the daily lives of an extended African-American family. Photo by Suzanne Laurent

When last occupied just before the museum was created in 1958, Penhallow House contained three apartments.

“Washington Street in Portsmouth was home to many African-American families during the mid-20th century,” said Nancy Hammond, a historian who lives in the South End neighborhood of Portsmouth.

Hammond helped with the research for Valerie Cunningham who, with Mark J. Sammons, wrote the book, “Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage.”

Samuel Penhallow built this house around 1750 at the corner of Court and Pleasant streets. A highly respected local magistrate and deacon of the North Church, Penhallow lived there for more than 60 years.

Judge Penhallow would sign manumission papers for enslaved people who were voluntarily freed from their enslavers.

Penhallow House was moved to its present site at 91-93 Washington St. in 1862. At the time, the tide still flowed into Puddle Dock, and Canoe Bridge spanned its upper end, just south of this house on Washington Street. The interior of Penhallow House still retains many original doors, sash, glass and cornices, as well as several windows with folding shutters and window seats.

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Preservation Timber Framing has begun work on the exterior of the Penhallow House at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth. From left, Dan Boye, Michael Mason and Alex Dykstra of PTF. Photo by Suzanne Laurent

Work on the exterior of the house, including 25 windows, doors, siding and the roof, was begun in June by Preservation Timber Framing. This work is scheduled to be completed in March.

When the interior work begins, it will include three apartments and one exhibit space created from the triplex plan of the 1930s.

“We will have one apartment interpreting a Black family from either the 1930s or 1940s,” said Elizabeth Farish, Strawbery Banke Museum’s chief curator. “The other two apartments will be rented through the museum’s Heritage House Program.”

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Seacoast African American Cultural Center founding member Geraldine “Jeri” Palmer, lived in the Penhallow House. Her family moved there in 1937 and resided at 91 Washington St., Portsmouth, NH, for five years. Photo by Suzanne Laurent

Eleanor and Kenneth Cousins moved into the house in 1937 with their daughter, Geraldine (Jeri) Cousins Palmer, who was 8 years old at the time. After five years, the family moved to Massachusetts.

After Palmer’s divorce, she and her daughter, Judith Baumann, returned to Portsmouth in 1970, where Palmer was a founding member of the Seacoast African American Cultural Center and a deacon of the Middle Street Baptist Church. She died in June 2020 at age 90.

Eleanor’s brother, Kenneth “Bunny” D. Richardson (1914-1994) moved into the same apartment in the 1940s.

Richardson worked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and became the first Black supervisor. He sat on the Equal Employment Opportunities Committee, administering and enforcing civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.

He also offered barbershop services in his home and led a brass band.

Where the museum is located in what is known as the Puddle Dock neighborhood, people from Africa and the Caribbean were enslaved by several prominent families. A cowrie shell (Cypraea annulus) was recovered during archaeological excavations at the Sherburne House, c.1695/1703, the oldest house at the museum.

“This type of shell is native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, and not present in the Atlantic,” said Strawbery Banke Museum’s archaeologist Alix Martin.

“Cowries were significant in many African cultures for various uses, including as food, currency, jewelry, and for ritual or religious significance.

“Numerous cowrie shells have been uncovered by archaeologists in the Caribbean and along the Atlantic Coast in contexts where Euro-American settlers enslaved African people, demonstrating a material link to Africa. These types of artifacts are described by archaeologists as ‘Africanisms,’ or survivals of African culture, including shells, crystals or specific types of pottery.”

According to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, the presence of cowrie shells on colonial sites in North America may be representative of their use by enslaved Africans as protective talismans, Martin added.

“At the Sherburne House, there is documentation that the Sherburne family enslaved an African man and woman in the early 18th century,” Martin said. “Although the written record of their presence and their contributions to the success of the Sherburnes’ merchant trade is scant, an artifact like this can provide a tangible and significant connection to their African origins.”

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A cowrie shell (Cypraea annulus) was recovered during archaeological excavations at the Sherburne House, c.1695/1703, the oldest house at the museum. Photo courtesy of Strawbery Banke Museum

The shell is on display in the museum’s Lawrence J. Yerdon Visitors Center.

Others were enslaved during the 18th century by the owners of the King’s Arms Tavern, the William Pitt Tavern, Marshall Pottery and the Wheelwright House, all of which is now part of the museum.

“Enslaved Africans and African Americans have played a significant role in New Hampshire history and the community at Strawbery Banke,” said Veronica Lester, Strawbery Banke Museum’s director of marketing. “Our museum staff is committed to telling their stories as enslaved and free people before New Hampshire’s ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, as well as throughout Puddle Dock’s post-13th Amendment history.”

Strawbery Banke is moving forward with developing the interpretation of the Penhallow House to telling the story of Black history in Portsmouth during the 1930s or 1940s. Plans are not yet finalized whether the house will tell the story of the Cousins or the Richardsons.

“In recreating, sometimes we forget the history of Black Americans,” said JerriAnne Boggis, executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. The trail has 23 markers around Portsmouth, one at the Penhallow House.

“There was a bigger major movement, and there were many Black families in the area around Strawbery Banke,” Boggis said. “If Portsmouth were a larger municipality, it would have been known as a Black neighborhood — an important part in the fabric of this city. It’s amazing that Strawbery Banke Museum is telling a deeper narrative with this house. Most people think of Black people living in the South or major cities like Chicago, not in a small city like Portsmouth.

“But, for more than 300 years, the lives of African people and their descendants have been a part of New Hampshire’s history,” Boggis said. “Yet, this African-American history has long been hidden in the shadows, even though Black lives have been intertwined with white lives in highly personal ways.”

Telling the Penhallow story tells more than enslavement, she added.

“New Hampshire folks were indeed involved in the Civil Rights movement,” Boggis said.

“Here we have the markers on houses that tell about auctions of enslaved people. In the 1950s and 1960s, Black people were still fighting for freedom. It’s an autonomous history. It didn’t begin and end with slavery.”


This article is featured in the spring 2024 issue of 603 Diversity.603 Diversity Q1 2024

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