In October of 2003, multiple coffins were discovered under a Portsmouth, NH street during an infrastructure update.
Further study (DNA-testing and archeological examination) confirmed that the remains of the 13 people found were African-born — both enslaved and free. What is now a short urban street originally lay at the outskirts of town, and although papers housed with the city refer to the area as a “Negro burying ground” beginning in 1705, the city grew up and over the graves. None of the dead are named.
Portsmouth put together a committee to raise money and create a site that would allow “reverence, reflection, and learning.” The process took over ten years and the result is the African Burying Ground Memorial. I knew about it from coverage in The Boston Globe from the spring (May 2015), when a consecration ceremony was held and the human remains were laid to rest in the new vault.
At the corner, one first meets the Entry Figures. They stand back to back. The plaque tells us that the male figure represents the first enslaved Africans brought to Portsmouth, while the female figure represents Mother Africa.
At the site’s consecration, artist Jerome Meadows mentioned that there was quite a bit of debate about whether these hands should touch.* Ultimately, the decision was NO. The gap stands as a “reminder of their forced separation and the division of past injustice.” Indeed, it is full of tension and heart ache.
Someone had recently left a red rose in Mother Africa’s palm. The fragility of those petals, well into the process of decay, managed to convey a sense of reverence and stillness, countermanding — even in their delicacy — a street construction project ten yards from her feet in one direction and a roofing project twenty yards from her hip in the other direction.
From there, a ribbon of contrasting red stone engraved with words from a 1779 petition leads you further into the site. The Petition was drafted by twenty enslaved men who had served in the Revolutionary War. Sensitive to the Revolution’s language of freedom and equality, they were among many blacks who tried to make a case for their OWN freedom during this period. The petition was heard but not acted upon because it was “not a convenient time”.
The petition was eventually passed — quite recently (April 2013). You can read more about it here and read the petition in its entirety here. Above is a screen shot from the last link and I include it so that, if you wish, you can read the twenty names outloud.
Finally, you come to the vault, where the new caskets were interred, and these figures. Life-sized and featureless, representing both genders and all ages, each of the eight figures bears a line of a poem (below) by the artist, Jerome Meadows.
The vault features a mosaic rendering of the Adinkra symbol, SAKOFA, which means “Go Back and Get It — Learn from the Past”. The railing shapes reference oars and the middle passage. Middle school children designed them after learning about Kente cloth and Mr. Meadows transferred their designs onto tile. A few other thoughts:
- I like that the site occupies the original burying ground, even as it is incongruous with the houses and businesses now there. Afterall, the history of slavery is an inconvenient history — one many of us would rather not learn. And why should THEY — the neglected remains — be moved elsewhere?
- The second figure is stamped with the words: I stand for those who feel anger. That’s probably you. And it’s me. To be included here mattered in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. I don’t expect this sort of inclusion. I don’t require it. And in fact, to expect it would be presumptuous and ridiculous. I even hesitate to write this reaction because IT IS SO NOT ABOUT ME. And yet, when I read those words (I stand for those who feel anger), my relationship to the memorial shifted a little, and it felt enlarged.
- Without knowing a thing, really, I took this inclusion as an indication of a good community process. It gave me hope, really.
- This quote from The Globe article by Holly Ramer Associated Press May 23, 2015 speaks to that: The discovery [of the graves] triggered community wide discussions not just about what to do with the site going forward, but about the city’s past, said Stephanie Seacord, spokeswoman for the African Burying Ground Committee.‘‘Why didn’t we pay attention to it? That’s been a really central part of the conversation,’’ she said. ‘’This isn’t just another monument being dedicated, it’s a conversation.”
- Here is a PDF of the proposal that includes interesting pictures of the site before the memorial was built as well as old maps with the “Negro Burying Ground” indicated.
* The website for the organization, AfricanBuryingGroundNH, includes a link to the Reburial Ceremony. It’s the first link. I watched a portion of the two-hour video the morning of our visit. It was fascinating to hear the artist, Jerome Meadows, talking about the site, including the thinking behind his design choices, and it was terrifically moving to watch the actual interment.
(Thank you Gracelaw Simmons for pointing out that the ceremony was the first link on the website!!)