Valerie Cunningham’s 30-year labor of love preserved a legacy New Hampshire had nearly lost.
The state prides itself on its preservation of history; indeed, Portsmouth, her hometown, boasts properties that showcase four centuries of it. Most residents assumed that few African Americans walked these historic streets until well into the 20th century.
But Cunningham discovered that black people not only lived in Portsmouth as early as 1645 but have contributed significantly to it ever since. She also learned that New Hampshire, whose state motto is “Live Free or Die,” was not free of slavery.
Cunningham’s 30 years of research culminated last June in the opening of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, a self-guided tour of more than 40 sites revealing three centuries of African American history to residents, schoolchildren, and the thousands of tourists who visit Portsmouth each year.
Cunningham seems a little stunned by this development, which some have called a “model of preservation of black history for American communities,” and she tries to share credit with anyone who lent support along the way, but her years of work literally blazed this trail.
“When I think back to when I was almost afraid to ask questions, when people reacted so weirdly, it’s like a miracle to see it come to this,” says Cunningham, 59. “When I attempted to find out about the Africans and black Americans who had lived in my hometown and in New Hampshire before me, there was nobody and nothing available to tell that history. It was as if generations of black people had never lived,” she says.
Walking the trail
Most of the 40 sites on the Black Heritage Trail are located within the same square mile or so of downtown Portsmouth, though a few are on the city’s periphery. Most can be visited within an hour.
Organizers divided the trail into smaller segments called “Topical Trails” with several themes: Work, Resistance and Civil Rights, Black Women, Religion, Institutions, Enslavement and Emancipation, and Patriotic Service.
Trail sites not only tell stories of black history but are woven into the lives of well-known Americans. One is the home of Prince Whipple, the black Revolutionary War soldier pictured in the famous painting of Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware. This soldier’s daughter, Ester Mulleneaux, later would help establish one of the earliest schools for black children.
Nearby is an election hall where annual celebrations were held, beginning in 1881, commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation. Trail sites also recount recent stories such as that of African American Rosary B. Cooper who, when World War II produced a labor shortage at home, became one of the nation’s first women crane operators at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
“The efforts of those who have organized the trail are literally changing the face of New Hampshire history,” says Jeffrey Bolster, a University of New Hampshire history professor and author of Black Jacks: African-American Seamen in the Age of Sail.
The trail is also a tangible link to the past. “History lives all around us, but too often we are unaware of the full story of our own past. This essential resource can teach us to see,” says John Ernest, who directs the university’s department of African American Studies and who, like Bolster, consulted on the trail project.
Searching the records
Valerie Cunningham’s quest began in Portsmouth’s early church records. “Churches had insisted that everyone be baptized, so records were fairly complete,” she says. They indicated a slave’s first name, and the name of the white owner.
“At the time, I didn’t know what I was doing—just trying to find out whether black people had lived in Portsmouth, filling up notebooks with names and dates, proving that yes, they had been here,” she recalls.
Their presence raised more questions: How did they get there? Where did they go? She combed through county probate records of slaves passing from master to widow or children; newspaper advertisements offering rewards for runaways; or the sale of slaves, including those brought in by ship and sold at the dock in Portsmouth.
“I began to connect some of the names and realize that there were families—generations—to be identified,” Cunningham says. Her work was complicated because enslaved people’s names usually changed with the transfer of ownership.
Searches among dusty records were intermittent at first, tucked into the busy hours of a mother caring for both an infant and a toddler. Her husband’s military service eventually took them far from her hometown, but Cunningham resumed her work whenever she returned to Portsmouth.
When she reached the mid-19th century, she found that the end of slavery made African Americans harder to trace in local records. So she began at the other end of history, collecting oral histories from elders in Portsmouth’s black community.
This was her favorite part of the work, because many of the interview subjects played a significant role in her life as she grew up in a community with few African Americans. “They mentored me, inspired me. I didn’t want them to die without seeing this story told and contributing to it,” she says.
Although facts and dates and places are important, Cunningham’s perseverance to find history’s “missing persons” really has been a search for stories that show how history is often made up of the stuff of everyday lives, she says.
Armed with her research, the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail committee—a group of volunteers that she oversees—created the trail, an evolution that took three years and continues today. Bronze plaques mark some sites along the trail, but about $50,000 must be raised to put a marker at each stop.
Financial support has come from local foundations, organizations, churches, businesses, and individuals.
Her home state has honored her efforts with its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Award and, more recently, a University of New Hampshire President’s Award of Excellence.
But the best reward of all, she says, is that people of all races are now embracing the black history she has uncovered as a part of everyone’s story.