- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2006


Amateur historian Valerie Cunningham was sure she knew what lay buried beneath Chestnut Street.

Forty years of combing through old documents for clues about this small seaport’s black history told her what physical evidence did not: that a few blocks from the trendy downtown shops, buried and all but forgotten below the brick and asphalt of Chestnut Street, lay the remains of Portsmouth’s earliest black inhabitants, freed and enslaved.

“You can park on it, if you’ve got a quarter,” said Miss Cunningham, who authored “Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage” with Mark Sammons.

The evidence included 19th-century newspaper clippings that said workers laying pipe had “disturbed numerous remains of negroes” and a map in Charles Brewster’s “Rambles about Portsmouth,” published in 1859. The map showed the “Negro Burial Ground” at the foot of Chestnut Street, then Prison Lane, in 1705.

Six years ago, the nonprofit Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, of which Miss Cunningham is president, placed a marker near the site. But the location was too imprecise to justify tearing up the street. Without burial records, the search for more information stalled.

Then, on Oct. 7, 2003, contractors repairing a sewer line hit a pine coffin. Miss Cunningham got the news at work at the University of New Hampshire.

“I don’t even have the words to describe it, I could not believe it,” she recalls.

In the ensuing days, archaeologists identified 13 sets of remains and removed eight that were damaged by sewer runoff. Some of the coffins were stacked, leading researchers to estimate that as many as 200 bodies were buried in the block-long space. Further testing confirmed their black heritage, and forensic analyses revealed they endured heavy labor and died young.

“There isn’t any one bit of information that says, ‘OK, this is definitely a slave.’ But putting it all together, it kind of gives us really strong evidence that it couldn’t be anything but that,” said Ellen Marlatt, a senior researcher with Independent Archaeological Consulting, which excavated and studied the remains.

New Englanders typically owned fewer slaves per family than Southerners, and dead slaves usually were buried in unmarked graves on their owners’ properties. Over time, nearly all the sites disappeared. Miss Marlatt said that is why Chestnut Street is so important.

“This is the only example of an 18th-century African burial ground, like a centrally located African burial ground, in New England,” she said.

Two larger burial grounds for slaves and free blacks also were discovered by construction workers in recent years. One found in New York in 1991 has been made a national monument. In Brazil, efforts are under way to preserve a huge burial ground discovered in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1990s.

The Portsmouth discovery raises many unanswered questions. Aside from the coffins and a single shroud pin, no artifacts have been found. Researchers say the chances of locating any living relatives are slim. They also were unable to determine how anyone died.

Histories show that slaves were bought and sold throughout the 1700s at Portsmouth’s taverns and docks. Captured Africans were brought to Portsmouth by sea captains with names now associated with historic events, buildings and even a town — names such as Rindge, Odiorne, Morse and Wentworth. By 1773, records show, 674 slaves were in New Hampshire. The largest group, 160, was in Portsmouth.

Now that it has been rediscovered, this burial ground won’t be forgotten again. Plans are not final, but the city intends to close Chestnut Street to traffic and create a memorial park there.

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