Guest Post: Reclaiming a Buried Past: Slavery, Memory, Public History, and Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground

Jessica Parr received her PhD from the University of New Hampshire at Durham in 2012. Her research interests are race and religion in the Early Modern British Atlantic. Her first book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon is forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi (2015). She currently teaches at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester. This is her second guest post for The Junto.

It was a scene that has been repeated in several American cities. In 2003, during an infrastructure project, 13 coffins containing unidentified human remains were found in Portsmouth, NH. Eight of the remains were exhumed for examination and confirmed as being of African descent, and later as part of a 1705 African Burying Ground, once on the city’s outskirts. As Portsmouth expanded, burying ground was built over and largely forgotten. Five additional sets of remains were found in 2008 during an archaeological dig on the site. Experts believe that 200 or more burials could have taken place in this 1705 African Burying Ground.[1] 

As historian Kami Fletcher notes, African-American burying grounds have a special significance in history. They serve as a record of those who typically lacked agency in the writing and documenting of their own history. The close relationship between the visible and invisible worlds and the importance of ancestors in many African traditions also make the treatment of the dead crucial.[2] This mistreatment of remains, or failure to observe proper burial ritual could doom the soul of the deceased to roam for eternity, and to render them unable to serve as a guardian for the descendants. The mutilation of remains, or the denial of burial rituals was one form of punishment inflicted upon rebellious slaves by masters.[3]

Prior to the Civil War, slaves and free Africans were commonly buried in segregated fields, outside of town or city limits. In some cities, like Philadelphia, African Americans were denied burial in city and parish cemeteries. [4] Over time, builders often added fill, wiping out the little record that existed of those interred. To cover up an African burying ground was, in effect, to erase the past. Even as remains were discovered, there was little consensus on what ought to be done about these discoveries. Some advocate for reburial. In a 1945 letter to W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston suggested an African American Pere Lachaise: a veritable monument to African-American luminaries such as Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass. She wrote, let us “remove the bones of our dead celebrities to this spot. Let no Negro celebrities, no matter what financial condition they are in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness.”[5] Others objected to the exhumation and reburial. Of particular concern was when excavation took place without a clear plan for the proper and respectful exhumation, handling, and storage of remains.[6] Approaches that did not involve exhumation and re-interment honored the interred in ways that do not require large-scale disinterment and reburial, but nonetheless, “re-posses” the dead and restore them to history.[7]

The African Burying Ground serves as an example of the latter. A year after the 2003 discovery of the remains, a commission was created by Portsmouth City Council to determine the best course of action. The project involved several years of planning, soliciting funds, working with experts, and also with abutters to where the remains were found. In 2010, Savannah, Georgia artist Jerome Meadow was commissioned to create a suitable memorial.[8] The goal was not to exhume and reinter all of the dead, a feat determined impossible for a number of reasons. Rather, organizers hoped to create a monument near the site of the original find, where visitors would remember and honor the Africans who were buried there: black voices who, although they have never received the veneration of historical figures like John Langdon, nonetheless were essential to Portsmouth’s early history. It is not a cemetery per se, but still a consecrated ground and a site of memory, commemoration, and contemplation. In some ways, the use of this site would not be unlike practices at traditional African American burying sites, where kin gathered to commemorate life, and to share stories.[9]

The consecration ceremony took place on 17 August 2014, and I was fortunate to be in attendance. The dignitaries in attendance included local African American clergy, Portsmouth City Council members, local historian Valerie Cunningham (of the Black Portsmouth History Trail), members of the African Burying Ground Committee, and Chief Oscar Ogugua Mokeme. It began with performance by members of an African drumming ensemble, and a sing-along of African-American spirituals, lead by Rev. Dr. Lillian Buckley, of the Bow Lake Free Baptist Church in Stafford, New Hampshire.

After introductions were made, Chief Mokeme performed prayers and blessings in Igbo. The ceremony included a cleansing of the ground with water, and an offer of alcohol, which, in Igbo tradition, encourages the ancestors to welcome the newly departed souls. In this case, those honored were long deceased, but the consecration ceremony was intended to right a historic wrong: the mistreatment of the dead and the erasure of their memory. Chief Mokeme also performed the Spirit Mask, a dance intended to awaken the spirit, offer blessings, and healing. The moving ceremony concluded with the reading of the names of the 200 Africans who interred in the 1705 African Burying Ground. The act of building over the Burying Ground was an act of erasing these individuals from history. In reading the names, that history was restored.

The combination of indigenous African and African-American traditions is also reflected in the design of the monument. At the wall by the entrance, one end features a woman, intended to represent Mother Africa. She reaches toward another figure, representing a Portsmouth slave.[10] The commemoration therefore recognizes not only the history of slaves and free African-American residents of Portsmouth, but also ties them to the African diaspora. African Burying Ground Committee member Calvin Edwards said that construction of the memorial should be completed in November 2014.[11]

____________

[1] Adam Leech, “More Bodies Unearthed at African Burying Ground,” Seacoast Online, 14 November 2008.

[2] Kami Fletcher, “Written in Stone: the Importance of African American Burial Grounds,” African American Intellectual History Society, 24 August 2014.

[3] Douglas R. Egerton, “A Peculiar Mark of Infamy: Dismemberment, Burial, and Rebelliousness in Slave Societies,” in Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, eds, Mortal Remains: Death in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 149.

[4] Michael Kammen, Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 26.

[5) Ibid., 26; “Philadelphia Playground Site of 3,000 African-American Graves, Archeologists Find,” The Huffington Post, 29 July 2013.

[6] Kammen, Digging up the Dead, 26.

[7] Ibid., 26-27. An animated walk-through of the future memorial can be found here: http://www.africanburyinggroundnh.org/mpd.html

[8] Kammen, Digging up the Dead, 189.

[9] Kami Fletcher, “From Death Springs Life: ‘The Best Man Holiday’ and African American Death Ideology,” African American Intellectual History Society, 24 July 2014.

[10] Joel Kost, “Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground Consecrated,” Fosters Daily Democrat, 18 August 2014.

 [11] Ibid.

8 comments on “Guest Post: Reclaiming a Buried Past: Slavery, Memory, Public History, and Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground

  1. Benedict@Large says:

    I’m not sure I go along with romantic notions of souls roaming for eternity, but the agency lost through the mistreatment of burial grounds is an important caution for any interested in preserving our historical knowledge of ourselves.

    • I’m not a believer in wandering souls myself, but the treatment of the remains as critical to the afterlife is a common belief in a number of African religious traditions. Like many Christian traditions (.e. Ars Moriendi, or “The Holy Dying”), there existed ideas of a “good death” in a number of African cultures. The combination of African and western traditions at the consecration ceremony was really intended to include the African past and also be reflective of the fact that some of the men and women buried under the streets of Portsmouth may very well have adhered to African religious traditions. So, much as you’d be concerned with the proper rituals if the deceased were Jewish, Muslim, Hindi, etc, the acknowledgement of these traditions can be construed as an effort towards respect for the beliefs of the dead.

  2. A Baptist being defined as a person who does not recognise a fellow congregation member if they run into each other at the liquor store, I wonder how the Reverend Lillian took to the Chief’s, uh, lubrication of the souls’ way into paradise.

    -dlj.

  3. Sam says:

    Interesting issue. The South is full of old burial sites. It is becoming a more common occurance with development projects. I know of one case in which just scant evidence has held up a project: Remnants of what was likely slave quarter foundation; some stones buried on their end nearby; and no evidence of removable human remains. Stirs up quite the debate as to what is the proper way to handle these situations, especially when they happen on private lands with significant money invested in projects already when they are found to have graves on them.

    Don’t know where I come down on any of this, but I expect this to become an even larger political issue in coming years.

    • Savannah, Georgia has a slave burying ground that is a tourist site. Some of the elite slaves (i.e. Rev. Andrew Bryan, who was an important Afro-American preacher) were moved to other cemeteries, but most slaves were not. There are a handful of headstones that are lined up in a neat row. As you can imagine, the site is rather controversial. And it’s not just limited to the South. The National Park Service runs an African American Burying Ground park site in NYC. Philadelphia has also discovered that an African American burying ground that contains some 3,000 burial sites is partially under a park in South Philly. The cemetery’s “residents” include early free blacks. Many would like to see the cemetery restored, given that it is an African-American Pere Lachaise of sorts, but it’s not clear what’s going to happen.

  4. […] Slavery, public history, memory, and an African burying ground. […]

  5. Update on the Portsmouth African Burying Ground: reburial ceremony and community celebration on the completion of the memorial park takes place May 23, 2015: http://www.africanburyinggroundnh.org/

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