Gravesites have been found in Portsmouth, Deerfield, Milford, Amherst, Hancock, Hanover, and Concord, sometimes on the outskirts of established cemeteries. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Some of New Hampshire’s history has been largely overlooked or forgotten. That’s been the case with historic gravesites of African Americans who lived in New Hampshire before slavery was abolished.
Only in the last two decades have researchers and descendant communities been uncovering these gravesites all across the state – some of them on private property marked with regular field stones and others on the outskirts of established cemeteries. Gravesites have been found in Portsmouth, Deerfield, Milford, Amherst, Hancock, Hanover, and Concord, among others. Now, a new bill is aimed at preserving those gravesites and ensuring that descendant communities are leading that process.
Those involved with these efforts, such as JerriAnne Boggis, the executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, say that revisiting this history has powerful implications for today. “I think this is just part of that bigger work we’re doing in raising awareness of these stories. Making history visible, accessible, dignified in the hopes of not only changing the dialogue but engaging people to think differently about our now, how did we get here,” she said.
Senate Bill 258 has gained bipartisan support among lawmakers and was passed unanimously in the Senate in February – during a session in which the fight over how the country’s complicated history should be taught is ongoing.
Preserving these gravesites is a way of preserving history, Boggis said, by giving a physical place to honor those who were denied their humanity during their lifetimes.
New Hampshire was home to some historically significant enslaved people, such as Ona Judge, who was enslaved by President George Washington’s family but escaped to make her home in New Hampshire. Judge’s burial site is on private property in Greenfield and was recently rediscovered in poor condition. Boggis said right now snowmobilers have access to the site and are causing damage to the headstone. The bill would allow for the protection of that graveyard site, where others are buried in addition to Judge.
Beyond preserving and documenting gravesites, the bill provides for the return of burial materials that have been removed from a burial site.
Sen. David Watters, the prime sponsor of the legislation, said this part of the bill was modeled after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“We need to think about how these sites are going to be protected and respected,” Watters said. “These are individuals whose humanity was denied in life, and so we ought to in death respect their remains and their sites. I think that’s part of a kind of healing process for our country when it comes to slavery.”
Watters, who worked for years as a professor of English at UNH, spent five decades researching graveyards and burial places in early New England culture as part of his academic career. He was also involved in starting an African American studies program at UNH.
Through his work, he’s rediscovered some of these sites – which are spread throughout the state. He said some of the sites have just been stumbled upon or rediscovered through word of mouth. When he was doing work on the Judge gravesite, for example, a passer-by told him about another burial site four streets over. Others have been uncovered by combing through historical documents from the 19th century, before the sites had been forgotten.
With research ongoing, Watters said, more sites are likely to emerge.
Boggis said these preservation efforts offer a richer history – one that benefits all New Hampshire residents and not just those in the descendant community.
“We not only dignify the human beings that were left out, but we dignify all of us,” she said.
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