House joins Senate in voting to free 14 long-dead N.H. slaves
House clerk Karen Wadsworth holds hands with representatives on the floor at Representatives Hall and sings Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Members of the house and its staff made singing the unofficial theme for the Boston Red Sox to show solidarity with the city of Boston one of the last items on their agenda before taking a two-week break. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
A group of slaves who in 1779 petitioned New Hampshire’s state government for their freedom are, at last, getting an answer.
The House yesterday voted, 346-0, to posthumously free 14 of the enslaved African men who signed the Revolutionary War-era petition. Six others had signed the petition but were freed by their owners before they died.
“Very rarely do we have the opportunity to stand proud and right a wrong. . . . This is one of the proudest moments in 17 years that I’ve stood in the Legislature,” said Rep. Jackie Cali-Pitts, a Portsmouth Democrat.
The Senate passed the bill last month; the House version corrected the spellings of two of the men’s names, so it’ll need to go back to the Senate for approval. Gov. Maggie Hassan’s office has said she’ll sign the bill into law.
The 20 slaves, who were living in Portsmouth, submitted their petition to the state government in 1779, and it was heard by the House in June 1780. But the House decided to postpone any action “till a more convenient opportunity,” according to its proceedings.
The bill to symbolically free the men was introduced this year by Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Portsmouth Democrat, at the request of the organizers of the African Burying Ground Memorial Park, a planned memorial in Portsmouth over a graveyard that was rediscovered in 2003.
Yesterday’s unanimous vote came after several turns.
The first speaker on the bill was Rep. Warren Groen, a Rochester Republican, who called slavery a blot on the nation’s history and compared it with abortion.
“I can’t help but think if maybe, 100 years from now or 200 years from now or however many years it takes, that the group that meets in this chamber will look back at the time that we’re living in right now, when one group of people did own another group of people. But not for the purpose of exploiting their labors for economic benefit, but for exploiting their lives because they wanted to dispose of them, because that preborn child was unwanted,” Groen said.
Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, chided Groen that his remarks should focus on the bill at hand.
Then, the initial vote on the legislation was 344-2, with Democratic Rep. Patricia Higgins of Hanover and Republican Rep. Michael Sylvia of Belmont both voting against it.
“I questioned, from where do we get the authority to grant emancipation? Because it seems like the flip side of the authority to enslave,” Higgins said.
Sylvia said he cast a “no” vote “because my question is, how many slaves were not freed today?”
Both Sylvia and Higgins then agreed to make the vote unanimous, so the House took a second vote and both joined their colleagues to support the bill.
In other action yesterday, the House approved several other bills that had previously passed the Senate. They included a bill expanding the RSA 79-E tax incentive program to include historic buildings outside downtown districts and a bill fixing a flaw in the state law allowing local tax caps.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)