Film tells NH’s, Milford’s role in slavery

MILFORD – The idea of freedom is baked into New Hampshire’s self-image, but the historical reality has not always lived up to the ideal.

Milford, Portsmouth and many other towns have been home to natives of Africa and to African- Americans for centuries, but their stories were often left out of official histories.

On the eve of the American Revolution, in 1775, there were 656 slaves in New Hampshire, most in the Portsmouth area. Almost a century later, African- Americans still worked in slavery or near slavery; at the same time, Milford’s Hutchinson Singers were singing out against slavery, and Milford’s First Congregational Church was hosting Frederick Douglass and other abolitionist speakers.

So how does New Hampshire, a state with the motto "Live Free or Die," deal with its participation in slavery and segregation? Some would say by ignoring its African-American history.

A new full-length documentary called "Shadows Fall North" confronts some of that history and will be shown for the first time in Portsmouth Music Hall on Thursday, May 26.

The film focuses on the recovery of Wilson and other parts of black history in New Hampshire by JerriAnne of the Harriet Wilson Project, and Valerie Cunningham, founder of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. Boggis, of Milford, founder

"Shadows Fall North" shows how their work has been central in the push to make black history part of this state’s history.

Filmmaker Nancy Vawter said in a phone interview that she was thrilled to tackle the project.

"There is more to the story of America … than most people realize," she said. "It wasn’t just the Puritans."

One of the stories her movie tells is about the African burial ground dis­covered on Chestnut Street in Portsmouth in 2003. In use during the 18th century, the burial ground was later paved over.

The vast majority of black people in Portsmouth were slaves in the 1700s, and this was the final resting place of 13 slaves. Sadly, they were considered of so little account that sewer pipe and pavement were laid over the graves.

There was a marker on the corner of Chestnut Street identifying the area as a "Negro burying ground," but no one knew exactly where the graves were.

Instead of ignoring the 13 graves, as city workers in the past must have done, in 2003, the workers reported them to city officials. Eight of the coffins, which dated from the late 1700s to early 1800s, were later reinterred and a memorial park opened at the site in 2015, restoring a sense of sacredness and honor.

The movie took Vawter and her husband, Brian, who together operate Atlantic Media Productions of Portsmouth, four years to make, and during that time they "learned more and more," she said.

In the 1920s, for example, Elizabeth Virgil, the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of New Hampshire, couldn’t get a job teaching here, so she had to move to the South.

"This documentary is just the beginning," Vawter said. "We want to create a sense of black history in our state that’s true" and acknowledges the fact that "we made money off of slavery."

Boggis started the Har­riet Wilson project about 12 years ago to call attention to the first African-American novelist.

"We really know little about black history … and I think the film will add so much more to the story," Boggis said.

The movie’s title comes from the original subtitle of Wilson’s novel, "Our Nig." Wilson lived in Milford in the mid-1800s, working as an indentured servant to a woman who tortured and overworked her.

The movie was produced in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire Center for the Humanities. A preview can be seen at blackhistorynh. com.

A panel discussion and question-and-answer session will follow.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

IF YOU GO

What: Screening of "Shadows Fall North."

Where: Portsmouth Music Hall.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 26.

Tickets: $11; seniors, military and students, $8.