Race and the Live Free or Die State - Documentary film premieres May 26
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
How does a state with the motto “Live Free or Die” confront its participation in slavery, segregation, and the neglect of its Black history? The University of New Hampshire’s Center for the Humanities explores that question in a documentary film, Shadows Fall North, that will premiere on Thursday, May 26 at 7 p.m. at the Music Hall in Portsmouth.
Funded in part by a grant from New Hampshire Humanities, Shadows Fall North focuses on the efforts of two dedicated historic preservationists and activists, Valerie Cunningham of Portsmouth and JerriAnne Boggis of Milford, to recover the stories of African Americans who have been rendered nearly invisible in the historical record, from individuals laid to rest at the African Burying Ground in Portsmouth to the novelist Harriet Wilson, author of Our Nig, the first novel by an African American published in the United States, to the twenty slaves who petitioned the state legislature for their freedom in 1779.
For many, New Hampshire does not come to mind when thinking about race relations because of its lack of diversity, but Africans and African Americans have lived here for hundreds of years. Valerie Cunningham made her very first discovery of the presence and impact of African Americans in New Hampshire in an old book of church records from 1807 that read “Contributions Xmas day – Venus – a Black – $1.” That scrap of paper led her to collect oral histories and, eventually, to establish the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, which takes tourists to sites where Portsmouth’s Black residents lived, worked, prayed, and celebrated.
The central story and metaphor in is the African Burying Ground in Portsmouth. In use during the 18th Century, the burying ground was later paved and built over. Coffins were unearthed in 2003 during a sewer and water construction project, and a memorial park opened at the site in 2015. A reburial ceremony for the remains that had been exhumed was held May 23, 2015, as the focal point of a multi-day commemoration that garnered local and national attention. Shadows Fall North culminates with footage of the reburial ceremony.
As it tells the stories that Cunningham and Boggis uncovered in their research, the film also reveals how the work of dedicated citizens, largely outside of traditional scholarly and educational institutions, can be central in a process of recovering seemingly lost history.
A panel discussion will follow the film featuring Valerie Cunningham, JerriAnne Boggis, and filmmakers Nancy and Brian Vawter.
Jason Sokol, an Associate Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire, will moderate the discussion.