Governor Maggie Hassan signs bill into law that frees 14 African slaves

Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., greets Vernis Jackson after signing a bill, Friday, June 7, 2013 in Portsmouth, N.H., that emancipates 14 slaves who petitioned for their freedom in 1779. A group of 20 slaves submitted a petition to the New Hampshire General Assembly on Nov. 12, 1779, while the war was still being fought. The original petition was found in state archives nearly 30 years ago, but supporters pushed lawmakers to pass the bill this year in part to bring attention to an African-American burial ground in downtown Portsmouth, where the city is raising money to build a memorial park to commemorate the site. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Governor Maggie Hassan greeted activist Vernis Jackson after signing the bill.
Jim Cole/AP

PORTSMOUTH, N.H.—They are free — at last.

After 234 years, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan today corrected a historical wrong by signing a biall into law that posthumously grants 14 African slaves their freedom.

As cannons and mortars roared in the Revolutionary War, 20 African men in the grips of battle had petitioned the state to outlaw slavery and hold true to the ideals upon which the Revolution was based.

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The New Hampshire General Assembly decided not to take action, pledging instead to address the Nov. 12, 1779 request at a more convenient time. The bill languished for more than two centuries.

“Their plea fell on deaf ears, and 14 of these men died as slaves,’’ said Hassan, in a speech before signing the bill in Portsmouth today. “It is a source of deep shame that our predecessors did not honor this request. But today, more than 230 years too late for their petition, we can say that freedom is truly an inherent right.”

New Hampshire, where just 1 percent of the people are African-Americans, has spent the past two decades coming to terms with its black history. It was the last state to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In past 20 years, the state opened its first black cultural center and a black heritage trail. A city construction crew dug up remains at a never-before-seen African Burying Ground, where some of the slaves who had signed the petition were buried.

As historians and activists such as Vernis Jackson launched a campaign to raise funds to erect a memorial park for the unknown slaves, they pressed lawmakers to sign the slaves’ petition. Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the petition earlier this year.

The bill comes on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and as movies such as “Lincoln” have resurrected conversations about the North’s role in keeping men enslaved and its lack of acknowledgment of its own slave past.

“Slavery was New Hampshire’s dirty little secret,’’ said Thomas Watson, president of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

The men who had petitioned the state came from Africa as part of the enslaved labor force that helped to build Portsmouth. They were educated men and had served alongside their owners in business and in war. The men wrote that “freedom is an inherent right of the human species not to be surrendered, but by consent, for the sake of social life.”

They pleaded for their freedom.

“Enact such laws,’’ they wrote, “whereby we may regain our liberty and be ranked in the class of free agents and that the name of slave may not be heard in a land gloriously contending for the sweets of freedom.”

The lawmakers responded: “The House is not ripe for a determination in this matter: Therefore ordered that the further consideration and determination be postponed till a more convenient opportunity.”

The petition lists the names of men like Zebulon Gardner, Cipio Hubbarb, and Kittindge Tuckerman.

Six of them eventually gained their freedom, but 14 died as slaves.

After the governor’s speech, she sat down at a table and used three pens to sign the bill, as the room of supporters erupted in cheers.

“The bill is now law,’’ she said.