Thursday, December 17, 2015

Haunted by Slave Burial Ground on the Solstice

Essay and photo published in the Concord Monitor, 12/26/15

Memorial for African Burying Ground, Portsmouth, NH
CC Jean Stimmell: 12/12/15
Spirits Rising at the African Burying Ground
Killing time while in Portsmouth last week, I wandered into the Memorial for the African Burying Ground, extending along Chestnut Street between State and Court.  Regrettably, I was a first-time visitor, despite knowing its history from reading the New Hampshire Gazette.

As early as 1705, documents referred to the memorial site as the “Negro Burying Ground.” It is unique in being the only known African Burying Ground of that era in all of New England. As Portsmouth grew, the burying ground was paved over and for the better part of 2OO years it was forgotten – purged from memory – until a backhoe unexpectedly hit coffin wood while doing sewer repair in 2003.

The Portsmouth City Council appointed a committee in 2004 charged with determining how best to honor those buried here, at least 200 discarded souls. The winning design selected by the committee reflects a joint effort between Savannah-based artist Jerome Meadows and landscape designer Robert Woodburn. Their restrained artistry retains the original character of the street and was obviously arranged to encourage deep reflection.

At the top of the site on the State Street side, two figures stand embedded in a slab of granite: one represents the first man brought from Africa; the other represents Mother Africa. On opposite sides of the granite wall, they reach for each other but can’t quite touch.

As you head downhill, one encounters various elements including a trail of pavers that run the length of the memorial engraved with text excerpted from a “Petition for Freedom,” submitted by 20 African men, who had been sold into slavery as children, to the NH state legislature.

Of course the petition was ignored. It is interesting to note that one of the petition signatories was Prince Whipple, whose “master” was Declaration of Independence signer, William Whipple.

Reflecting on what I am seeing on the way down, I feel my chest tightening from the weight of ever-increasing, white man guilt. Finally reaching the bottom, I encounter in the cold, slanting light of the setting, solstice sun, eight abstracted human figures, made of concrete and plated in brass, standing confined by the boundary fence.

Tears in my eyes I take photographs, one of which is displayed above, solarized to match my mood – along with the following verse which arose in my mind:

Spirits arise on the solstice,
slaves from the grave,
haunting us each year
with the same old refrain:

Why don’t black lives matter?


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