African Burying Ground and Memorial Park Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Backstory and Context
This African Burial Ground is located on Chestnut Street, which is between Court and State streets in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was actively used in the early 18th century, and is the only African burial ground to be discovered in New England. During its time of active use, Chestnut Street was undeveloped and outside of the downtown area. The initial development of the town was tied to slavery, and it was one of the few ports in the colonies that did not enforce tariff on slaves. This made the town a popular port for slave ships during the late 1600s and 1700s. The Africans slaves and their descendants also played a large role in building the city's infrastructure as it grew from a small hamlet to a central seaport.
In 1803, city leaders made the decision to pave over the burial grounds. Many of the bodies buried at the site were disturbed by the construction of pipeline and streets in preparation for residential expansions. Although some local history enthusiasts and city representatives knew of the burial site via public records, industrial progress overtook the memory of the many Africans who lost their lives. The next two centuries would continue to demonstrate that trend which now appeared to be the deciding fate of the original African and African American people of Portsmouth.
In 1995, the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail featured the site recognized as the “Negro Burying Ground” as one of its twenty-four historic areas within the town which honored the history of the African community that has belonged to the state since 1645. The burial site was included in the literature included with the Black Heritage Trail. In 2000, a bronze plaque was placed on Chestnut Street, but the burial site continued to be unnoticed.
In 2003, there was a significant turn of events regarding the forgotten history of the site. Chestnut Street underwent routine infrastructure upgrades as part of a City improvement project, which included excavation below the pavement. This led to the discovery of thirteen individual coffins and skeletal remains that confirmed the location to be part of the forgotten “Negro Burying Ground.” Experts estimated, based on the available records, that as many as two hundred bodies have been buried under Chestnut Street, which is now in the heart of downtown Portsmouth. The newly rediscovered grounds became a leading concern for many citizens of Portsmouth who recognized the importance to restoring the site. Members of churches, civic organizations, and city council members collaborated with the newly appointed African Burying Ground Committee to materialize a united vision for this aspect of Portsmouth’s history.
The sacred grounds soon became a memorial park with the title “We Stand in Honor of Those Forgotten”. The park features sculptural works and historical background along with decorative landscaping to honor the memory and connect the residents to those who were buried at the site. Each of the sculptures expresses symbolism representing the experience and history of the site. One end of the park displays a sculpture of a man and a woman reaching around a slab towards the other, which expresses the numerous stages of separation, uncertainty, and perseverance that was imposed upon the Africans brought over as slaves. The opposite end of the park exhibit is a sequence of figures that represents the community of Portsmouth uniting and honoring the memory of the burial grounds and form a ring around the burial vault that displays the West African Sankofa symbol that means Return and get It; Learn from the past.As the construction of the park was nearing completion, the local African American community arranged reburial ceremonies with twenty African American female elders being the last to touch and cover the remains as they return to their final resting place. There was a following all-night vigil as acts of love and honor by community members of all ages, faiths, and colors, that included poems, prayers, songs, dances, and music. Another reburial ceremony took place on May 23, 2015, with African traditions that were expected to be familiar to those being laid to rest.
Corwin, E. (2015, May 24). In New England, Recognizing A Little-Known History Of Slavery. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2015/05/24/409286733/in-new-england-recognizing-a-little-known-history-of-slavery
Leech, A. (2008, November 13). More bodies unearthed at African burying ground. Retrieved from http://www.seacoastonline.com/article/20081114/NEWS/811140426
Portsmouth African Burying Ground In Honor Of Those Forgotten. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.africanburyinggroundnh.org/story.html
Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail Self-Guided Tour. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://portsmouthhistory.org/portsmouth-black-heritage-trail/self-guided-tour/#anchor10
Press, H. R. (2015, May 22). Portsmouth park honors, preserves African burying ground - Portland Press Herald. Retrieved from http://www.pressherald.com/2015/05/23/portsmouth-park-honors-preserves-african-burying-ground/