Bill would posthumously grant freedom to New Hampshire slaves
A portion of the 1779 New Ham,pshire Emancipation Bill.
Published March 06, 2013
N.H. – When 20 slaves petitioned New Hampshire two centuries ago
seeking their freedom, lawmakers decided the time wasn't right and
Now, 233 years later, legislators in one of the
nation's whitest states have decided the time is right to consider the
request. A Senate committee on Wednesday unanimously recommended the
full body posthumously emancipate the 14 petitioners who never were
Woullard Lett, a member of the Manchester NAACP, said it's never too late to right a wrong.
"It's symbolic and 200 years late, however then and now it's the right thing to do," Lett said before testifying at the hearing.
Cunningham, a historian and preservationist from Portsmouth, said she
came across the slaves' petition in state archives nearly 30 years ago.
It was originally submitted to the New Hampshire General Assembly on
Nov. 12, 1779, while the Revolutionary War was still being fought.
slaves all served in the war effort and believed the freedom being
sought by colonists should be extended to them as well. They wrote,
"Freedom is an inherent right of the human species" and that "public
tyranny and slavery are alike detestable to minds conscious of the equal
dignity of human nature."
"This is part of American history that
just has not been recognized, and New Hampshire is not unique in that
regard," said Cunningham, speaking in the hallway outside the hearing
Cunningham said in a history she wrote of the black
community in the state's Seacoast region that of the original
petitioners, six of the slaves were later freed and 14 died in bondage
with legislators never acting on their request.Buck & Breck/Democracy & Slavery banner
Painted cotton, silk and maple, 1856
New Hampshire Historical Society Collection
Members of the new Republican Party carried this banner during the 1856
campaign, criticizing the Democratic candidates for supporting the
Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, popular sovereignty, and the extension of
slavery into the territories. "Buck" refers to Democratic Presidential
candidate James Buchanan, "Breck" refers to Democratic Vice-Presidential
candidate John C. Breckinridge.
Black people accounted for 1.1 percent of New Hampshire's 1.3 million people in the 2010 U.S. Census.
state was the last to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a state
holiday, but the slain civil rights leader's widow and children found
New Hampshire residents welcoming when they visited following his
funeral in 1968.
Cunningham said the state is no less welcoming
to blacks than the rest of New England, but the tiny population in New
Hampshire makes it more difficult for their voices to be heard.
Sen. Martha Fuller Clarke, D-Portsmouth, is sponsoring the Senate bill.
She told colleagues Wednesday that she hopes the Legislature will act
quickly to emancipate the former slaves. The approval by the Public and
Municipal Affairs Committee means the bill can now go before the full
Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she would sign the bill if approved by the full Legislature.
said acting now would help bring attention to an African-American
burial ground in downtown Portsmouth, where a mayoral committee is
hoping to build a memorial park. The African Burying Ground Committee
has worked for almost a decade to get the memorial built, and though
they need additional money, a spokesman said they may break ground on
the project this summer. The design would include granite engravings
with passages from the petition.
The goal of the bill and the
memorial park is to celebrate the culture and contribution of blacks to
New Hampshire and bring that history to the fore, Cunningham said.
"It's sad that this is not in the schools. We need to make sure that the history we teach is more inclusive," she added.
said he sees the bill as largely symbolic but hopes its passage will
mean the Legislature doesn't plan to wait another 200 years to address
the concerns of the black community today. He said those concerns
include persistent wage and health inequalities and a disproportionate
number of blacks in the state prison system.