Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail Joins Statewide Group
The carefully researched walking trail originally designed by historian Valerie Cunningham is now part of a newly formed statewide nonprofit organization.
Portsmouth Historical Society president, Ed Mallon (left) and executive director Kathleen Soldati (right), with Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire president Reverend Robert Thompson.
Raya on assignment
The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail (PBHT), previously merged with the Portsmouth Historical Society, has a new home. The carefully researched walking trail originally designed by historian Valerie Cunningham is now part of a newly formed statewide nonprofit organization.
“I am pleased and proud to announce that the PBHT is now officially owned and operated by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire (BHTNH), Portsmouth Historical Society president Ed Mallon announced this week. “We have been honored to work closely with the trail staff and volunteers for the last five years as its exciting and important programs grew. The stories of the PBHT have changed the lives of countless thousands who discovered four centuries of African American history in New Hampshire’s only seaport.”
Launched in 2017, BHTNH includes an impressive slate of directors and officers led by president Rev. Robert Thompson and supported by 50 volunteers. Their mission is to tell the little-known stories of blacks in New Hampshire.
“Black history is American history,” says BHTNH executive director JerriAnne Boggis, “and we want to thank the Portsmouth Historical Society for giving us a home when we needed one which allowed us to grow. We are excited to share the stories of Black lives in New Hampshire statewide and beyond.”
The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail grew out of Cunningham’s decades-long research into the lives of local African Americans dating back to 1645. What began as a study guide for educators became a self-guided walking tour and, ultimately, a groundbreaking book entitled Black Portsmouth by Cunningham and historian Mark Sammons.
To date, 27 Portsmouth sites have been marked with permanent brass plaques that present the city's history through the eyes of enslaved, freed, and contemporary black citizens. The Portsmouth trail has become a model for other cities, attracted extensive media coverage, fostered educational classes, inspired scholarly articles, and stimulated public discussion.
Interest in New Hampshire’s “invisible history” inspired the Harriet Wilson project and memorial statue in Milford, NH and a campaign to save Rock Rest, a 20th century vacation site for black families in Kittery, Maine. When the ancient “Negro Burying Ground” was revealed beneath the paved streets of Portsmouth in 2003, it was located exactly where a nearby PBHT plaque predicted it would be. In 2016, following a $1.5 million campaign, the remains of thirteen colonial Africans were re-interred at what is today the Portsmouth African Burying Ground Memorial Park.
In 2012 PBHT merged temporarily with the Portsmouth Historical Society, a century-old nonprofit that operates the John Paul Jones House Museum, Discover Portsmouth, the Portsmouth Marine Society Press, Portsmouth Advocates, and the recently formed Portsmouth400 team. An agreement transfers legal ownership of the PBHT, its name, its programs, and all its assets to the newly formed statewide organization.
“Working with Valerie, JerriAnne, and the PBHT volunteers has been a highlight of my career,” says PHS executive director, Kathleen Soldati. “Their tireless work has changed Portsmouth forever, and we look forward to continuing our alliance as we tell Portsmouth stories together.”
Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire offers a variety of programs beginning each year in February with the Elinor Williams Hooker Tea Talks. A Juneteenth celebration follows the annual Spring Symposium. Trained Sankofa guides are available for trail tours of important African American sites. Each fall the Black New England Conference tackles important and provocative topics of race and diversity. BHTNH also provides a searchable database and screenings of the powerful award-winning documentary “Shadows Fall North.” Their website, YouTube channel, Facebook page, and email newsletter keep members and the public up to date on events and research.
For more information on BHTNH programs, visit the official website at blackheritagetrailnh.org.