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More than 230 years later, Portsmouth slaves granted freedom

Union Leader Correspondent

June 10. 2013 2:48AM
Gov. Maggie Hassan with Renee Rouse, daughter of New Hampshire's first African American legislator, after signing a bill freeing Portsmouth's enslaved men 234 years after their request was tabled by the New Hampshire Legislature. (Gretyl Macalaster/Union Leader)

PORTSMOUTH — More than 230 years after 20 Portsmouth slaves petitioned the New Hampshire Legislature for their freedom, it has been granted.

On Friday, Governor Maggie Hassan signed Senate Bill 187 into law at the Discover Portsmouth Center, posthumously freeing the city's enslaved men.

Tom Watson, president of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, said the law "rights a wrong" that was committed in 1780 when the petition was tabled by the legislature, and helps to raise awareness of the city's diversified history.

It also draws attention to the effort to create an African American Burying Ground Memorial Park in Portsmouth to recognize the slaves buried under Chestnut Street. The burying site was discovered in 2003 during a street construction project.

Watson said until then and with the publishing of Valerie Cunningham's book "Black Portsmouth," his understanding of the city's history had been one of a white European settlement that did not include slavery.

He said slavery was Portsmouth's "dirty little secret" and then, in 2003, there was the discovery of coffins under Chestnut Street during construction. It has been determined that more than 200 unidentified slaves were buried there from the early 1700s through the 19th century before the area was built on and forgotten.

He said the city should be commended for committing to closing that city block to create a memorial to the burying ground.

Watson said the story of the 1779 petition is a critical component to that park.

Many of the phrases from the petition will be etched in stone and made a permanent part of the memorial.

Watson said the slaves who filed the petition all fought in the Revolutionary War, and believed the statement that all men are created equal and thought that should apply to everyone, but 14 of them died slaves.

Watson said passage of SB 187 rights a wrong.

"Additionally, it really sends a contemporary message that New Hampshire continues to support liberty and freedom for all of its citizens," Watson said.

He said it is also a public acknowledgement of the state's mistakes.

State Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, was the prime sponsor of the bill and said it passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate.

The event also featured official recognition of Henry B. Richardson as the first African American to serve in the New Hampshire Legislature after being elected in 1975.

His daughter, Renee Rouse, was on hand with one of Richardson's granddaughters and three great-granddaughters.

About the Senate bill, Rouse said her father would have said it was about time.

Rouse said she brought her children and grandchildren to the event because she wants them to know about the men and women who came before them and created footprints for them to follow.

"My father always wanted us to know we could make a difference," Rouse said. "I hope this helps the people of New Hampshire understand they are a state moving forward and making peace."

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