Local documentary recalls slavery

MILFORD – In 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, there were 656 slaves in New Hampshire. Almost a century later, African-Americans still worked here in slavery or near slavery.

Later, in the mid-1800s, Harriet Wilson, author of the autobiographical novel, “Our Nig,” lived in Milford as an indentured servant.

People in this Live Free or Die state tend to see slavery, and the segregation and prejudice it spawned, as a Southern problem, and black history happening somewhere else. It was something that didn’t have much to do with us.

But New Hampshire has a long black history, and a full-length documentary titled “Shadows Fall North” focuses on the efforts of two women, JerriAnne Boggis of Milford, and Valerie Cunningham, of Portsmouth, to recover it.

The movie made its debut at the Portsmouth Music Hall in 2016, and it has been shown around the state and in Vermont and Maine. Now, the first Milford screening will be on Wednesday, at the Amato Center, starting at 6 p.m.

The film’s producer, Nancy Vawter, of Atlantic Media Productions, has been to many of the screenings and says the best part is watching the audience reaction and the conversations that follow.

White people ask, “Why didn’t we know and what can we do” to add this to our collective history?” Vawter said in a phone interview. “It’s a cathartic experience for so many people, and it leads to conversations that are “powerful and moving and uncomfortable.”

And people of color watch the film and say they “finally felt connected to this state,” because its message is: You have been a part of New Hampshire from the beginning.

“We like to gloss over anything that’s uncomfortable,” Vawter said, and the documentary helps people face historical facts they might tend to ignore.

“It’s an entryway to an amazing history,” she said. “It’s also a “jumping off point to everything that is happening today and open up a conversation about race.”

Boggis, the founder of the Harriet Wilson Project and the director of the Portmouth Black Heritage Trail, will help facilitate the discussion after the screening.

She has seen the movie many times.

“I hope people turn out, because so much of Milford is featured,” she said.

She won’t be surprised if there are more movies to come.

“There are so many stories” they didn’t get into Shadows, she said, including the story of Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s person slave, who fled to New Hampshire, and Noyes Academy, an interracial school founded in Canaan in 1835 and quickly demolished by locales.

But for now, Boggis is busy at work on a black history tour of Milford that will be offered in October in conjunction with a Black New England conference at the University of New Hampshire.

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