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‘Systemic racism is interwoven in the very fabric of the founding of the state of New Hampshire’

  • The grave marker for prominent abolitionist Nathaniel Peabody Rogers in the Old North Cemetery in Concord on Tuesday. MELISSA CURRENMonitor staff

  • The grave marker for Nancy Herbert in the Old North Cemetery in Concord on Tuesday. MELISSA CURREN / Monitor staff

  • Sen. David Watters and Robert Thompson during filming at the State House. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 3/28/2021 1:34:47 PM

A headstone in the old North Cemetery in Concord bears the name Nancy and tells part of the story of one of the city’s early Black residents.

In the 1700s, Nancy, an infant, was purchased as a slave by the Herbert family for only a few dollars and brought to Concord from Boston. She was eventually freed, but stayed with the Herberts.

As a free woman, she joined the First Congregational Church of Concord and the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society.

Her name was Nancy Herbert, and she died in the same place she lived as a slave for the first part of her life. She passed away in 1845 – at the age of 79 – 16 years before the Civil War began.

Nancy’s story is one of many that was told in a new video released by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, a video that covers Black history in Concord and serves as a virtual guided tour of historical sites of significance to the Black community and the state’s past.

“African-American history is New Hampshire history, and this is especially true in this, our capital city,” Robert Thompson, past president of the nonprofit Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, says at the beginning of the video.

The video, “I was a slave, even here in New Hampshire”: The Concord Black Heritage Tour, is narrated and presented by Thompson and Sen. David Watters, a fellow member of the Black Heritage Trail board.

The tour is part of the group’s plan to expand the trail from Portsmouth and include communities all over the state.

“What we look for is where there is a significant cluster of stories so that you can have a trail with multiple sites,” Watters said, and Concord is one of these places.

The organization made the video to provide a template for the eventual trail, and as a resource for communities that want to learn and expand on the research.

The video was also a result of the pandemic, Watters said. Under normal circumstances, the Heritage Trail would have done a live tour along with a conference in the fall, but since the pandemic made that impossible, the video was filmed in its place.

“It was a desire to get Concord on the map in terms of the Black Heritage Trail’s expansion statewide,” Watters said. “I really wanted to get into Concord because it is the seat of government.”

The interplay between the state government and the history of racism in the state is deeply important, Watters said. “I thought that it was therefore particularly important to recover these stories,” he said.

One of the stops on the virtual tour is the house of Rev. Timothy Walker in Concord – which Thompson said was the center of the early Concord settlement – as well as the building that is now across the street, but used to be next to the Walker house. This was the building that housed the first session of the state’s legislature, a building whose occupants were served and waited on by three enslaved people from the reverend’s house.

It is a reminder, Thompson said, that, “systemic racism is interwoven in the very fabric of the founding of the state of New Hampshire.”

Another stop is the New Hampshire Historical Society, which houses many artifacts, including a small dollhouse constructed by a runaway slave. The dollhouse was constructed by the man while he was staying at another one of the tour’s destinations, a farmhouse owned by Nathaniel and Armenia White, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The dollhouse is one of the only known objects to be crafted by an escaped person in passage on the Underground Railroad, Thompson said. Shaped like a small cabin, it contains two Black figures sitting in a furnished room.

“It transgresses racial and class boundaries by showing a Black couple in such a house and invites a child to imagine such a life for Black people, safely, as playthings,” said Thompson, who added, “It challenges New Hampshire today to consider how race defines who claims New Hampshire as a home.”

Watters, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, researched and wrote the video.

“I just scratched the surface,” he said, and added that one of the goals he had was for local researchers to continue what he started.

“It’s like planting a seed,” he said. “We really hope that this history is embraced by the folks in Concord.”

One of these local historians is Jim Spain, who is happy to embrace the topic of Black history. Along with Nancy’s story, Spain related the histories of others who lie in the same graveyard, like Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, a prominent abolitionist of the day. His anti-slavery stance was so strong that he insisted on not having a headstone on his grave until slavery was abolished.

In that same cemetery is President Franklin Pierce, whose pro-slavery stance is infamous amongst historians.

“You have the president, you have the abolitionist, and then you have the slave, all buried within yards of each other,” Spain said.

Another video segment features Watters talking to Melanie Levesque, who was a state senator when the video was filmed, about what all of this history means for Concord today.

“I thought it was important that we try to bring it up to the present day just to show how interwoven slavery and the struggle for equal rights has been with the history of the state,” she said.

Watters and Levesque connected the state’s Black history to today’s struggles, discussing the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, criminal justice reform, and Levesque’s desire to protect voting rights in the state.

“That desire actually comes from my ancestors, comes from our history, to know what it’s like not to be able to vote, and then to have this precious right is something that we must continue to fight for,” she said.

“After 200 years of freedom, we’re still not free,” she added.

Thompson ended the video by saying, “We do this in the memory and honor of African Americans of earlier generations, and in the hope that this history can bridge America’s racial divisions, foster hard conversations about justice and equity, and affirm for future generations that Black lives do, indeed, matter.”

For more information about the work the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire does and to access the virtual tour of Concord’s Black history, visit blackheritagetrailnh.org.

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