Shining a light on N.H.'s black history

(lisa poole for the boston globe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bill Porter
Globe Staff / August 10, 2008

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - Valerie Cunningham's tired eyes trudged for hours across page after page of old records extracted from a closet at Saint John's Episcopal Church one day in the 1960s.

Amid an endless procession of marriages, births, baptisms, deaths, and finances, a December 1807 entry leaped off the parchment: "To Venus - a Black - $1."

It was the first record Cunningham found indicating there was a community of black people in Portsmouth at the time. "Nobody ever talked about black people in Colonial Portsmouth," she said.

Today, they do. Cunningham, for one, has helped make sure of that. The 67-year-old preservationist and scholar of local black history, who recalls that she was one of five black graduates in the Portsmouth High School Class of 1959, still trudges in search of truth, and toils against ignorance and prejudice.

Cunningham is a founder and president of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, a self-guided tour of sites where African-Americans have lived, worked, and worshiped for more than 350 years.

She has been a founding member of several civic organizations, including the Blues Bank Collective, the New Hampshire Circle of Friends, and the Portsmouth-Greater Accra Sister City Connection, and is a board member of the Seacoast African-American Cultural Cen ter. In 2005, she was appointed by Governor John Lynch to serve on the New Hampshire Commission on the Status of Women.

She retired May 31 as coordinator of the University of New Hampshire's Community Black Heritage Partnerships, which, according to the university, strives to involve students in historic preservation work and bring history into the classroom.

"And to bring the classroom into the community," said Cunningham, who founded the organization.

"Without memory, there is no history, so Valerie Cunningham has labored for four decades to preserve the remembrance of African-American life stories and historic sites in the Seacoast region," said David Watters, director of the UNH Center for New England Culture. "She explored archives to discover the untold stories of slavery in early Portsmouth when confronted with history books and teachers who were silent on the subject."

Cunningham was honored for her research and preservation work by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and HGTV Restore America, which acknowledged her as a Restore America Hero at a June gala at the Library of Congress in Washington.

"The restoration award she received in June was well-deserved because her efforts with the Black Heritage Trail and other involvements have informed the public about the depths of black history in New Hampshire," said her son, Brad Randolph, of Portsmouth.

"It was fabulous," Cunningham said, referring to the award and trip to Washington. "In some ways it was a little embarrassing because I also realized that I wouldn't have been able to accomplish all these things without some really strong support from a lot of people, my parents to begin with."

Her parents were part of a group that advocated for and helped organize the first Seacoast branch of the NAACP.

Cunningham recalls: "I was living at a time when the local newspapers and the local magazines still had cartoons of black people being idiots and having bones in their noses and being animal-like or childlike figures. I knew as a black person that this was not a true reflection of me, my family, or my black community."

Cunningham had seen occasional references in history books to slaves in Portsmouth and developed a curiosity about slavery and whether there was a black community here. "I just wanted to know more about these people than I was getting from these little references in these local history books," she said.

The classroom for Cunningham wasn't at the school. "When I was in school we didn't learn any black history, so the black history that I did learn I learned at home and at church, at the People's Baptist Church on Pearl Street," she said. "That was one of my preservation projects."

It is also a stop on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. Now known as the Pearl Street Church, it was built in 1858 by a white congregation known as the Free Will Baptists. The state's first black congregation, the People's Baptist Church, had been gathering in a city meeting hall when it bought the building in 1915, Cunningham said. She discovered a Pearl Street Church bulletin that told of a guest appearance by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then a doctoral student at Boston University, who delivered a sermon at the church in October 1952. A woman named Coretta Scott was listed as a member of the guest choir.

Cunningham's daughter, Kirby Randolph, said she has been inspired by her mother. "She's very dedicated to preserving the history and sharing that with other people," said Randolph, who teaches history of medicine at the University of Kansas's School of Medicine. "It's a result of her growing up in Portsmouth, where that history wasn't acknowledged."

Cunningham coauthored, with historian Mark J. Sammons, a book titled "Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage," which was published in 2004.

She is working to help the city on a memorial park for the African Burying Ground, another stop on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. A place on a city map was labeled "Negro Burying Ground" in 1705. As Portsmouth expanded, the site was built over. A few years ago, construction workers revealed 13 coffins.

"It emphasizes and will make visible the reality of slavery here," Cunningham said.

City councilor Chris Dwyer, who serves on a city committee working on the burying ground project, sees far-reaching effects of Cunningham's efforts. "The history of Portsmouth is the history of our country," Dwyer said.

Another of Cunningham's projects is the restoration of Rock Rest, an African-American guest house in Kittery Point, Maine.

Cunningham also is focusing on identifying more black history in the West End of Portsmouth.

There is always more work to do. "I don't see any end in sight."

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