On Remembrance and Resurrection: Commemorating Portsmouth’s (NH) African Burying Ground

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A horse-drawn wagon, bearing coffins holding the remains of the Portsmouth Africans.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” From John 11:25 comes this Bible passage describing Lazarus’s miraculous rise from the death, as he addressed Martha, the sister of Lazarus. For Christians, this lesson is supposed to demonstrate that death is no obstacle to Jesus. This passage figured prominently into Igbo healer Chief Oscar Mokeme’s commemoration of the life of Portsmouth’s Africans, which featured a syncretic blend of Igbo and Christian funeral customs.

Some may find Mokeme’s invocation of this Bible passage strange in a ceremony honoring the reburial of people who have been dead for centuries and whose religious proclivities are unknown. But Mokeme continued, reminding the crowd about the journey taken by the departed, many (if not all) of whom were probably slaves. They were buried in an African burying ground, established on what was once the outskirts of town in 1705. Over time, as the city expanded, the graves were paved over and forgotten until 2003. While undertaking some routine maintenance on a site near State and Chestnut Streets, utility workers discovered what were determined to be human remains. Archeologists and historians later confirmed that the remains belonged to people interred in Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground. Once their identity was confirmed, a group of community activists, scholars, clergy, and city officials decided that something would need to be done to remember and honor the people who had been buried there.

The monument at the entrance to the Memorial Park.  Designed by sculptor Jerome Meadows.

The monument at the entrance to the Memorial Park. (Sculptor, Jerome Meadows)

In August of 2014, a celebration was held to consecrate what would eventually become a new African Burying Ground Memorial. The memorial park was completed in November of 2014, and the reburial ceremony held on 23 May 2015. Mokeme’s use of Christian imagery was intended to remind those who gathered to witness the reburial (a 3-day event) that what they were witnessing was a remembrance of the past, and a resurrection of the memory of Portsmouth’s Africans. In many African traditions, death is not the end, but rather “the resurrection of life in another form.” [1] Upon death, the departed begins a journey where they join the ancestors, who are to watch over and guide the living. Disturbance of the graves was a disturbance of the ancestors. In this context, the ceremony on the 23rd can be understood as a symbolic gesture to allow the deceased to restore them to their rightful place among the ancestors. But more than that, it is a resurrection, or restoration of a forgotten (and some may say discarded) past. Part of Mokeme’s speech incorporated the story of Exodus. Following the Israelites’s flight from Egypt, Joshua’s bones (which had been brought from Egypt) were reburied at Shechem. The Exodus story features prominently in a number of African American Jeremiads, drawing parallels between the Israelite’s flight from slavery, and the theo-political language woven into black nationalism. [2] In this context, there are obvious reasons for invoking the parallels between Joshua’s reburial, following the freedom of the Israelites, and the reburial of those who were slaves during in life, over a hundred years after the end of slavery here. But additionally, the reburial functioned as a reclamation (or resurrection) of the Portsmouth Africans as “our ancestors,” Mokeme argued. It would allow them to find peace in addition to restoring their dignity. “By witnessing this today,” another speaker noted, “you stand as family. You hold this memory. Place matters and people matter.”

Side view of the African Burying Ground Memorial.

Mokeme reminded observers that the purpose of this exercise was not relive the injustices of slavery, but to celebrate healing in the difficult process of reconciling peace with slavery. Nonetheless, it is impossible to hold such a commemoration without an acknowledgement of historical fact. The monument at the entrance of the park features a figure representing an enslaved man in American, and a woman, representing Mother Africa, on each side of a granite slab. Their hands are an inch apart, never to touch. Meadows explained at the unveiling that it was a decision he had agonized over, but decided that the monument had to acknowledge certain brutal truths about slavery.

The moving ceremony also featured a community sing along, including a number of African-American spirituals. Those familiar with the history of this music will recognize that the religious messages were laden with meanings, including Kumbaya (1920s) and Oh, Freedom! (post Civil War) Both songs were recording during the age of Jim Crow, and are linked with the Civil Rights movement, where African-American churches played a critical role. The past, unsurprisingly, was omnipresent during the ceremony.

The nine coffins in the vault, constructed as part of the park.

The ceremony an opportunity for witnesses to view the vault, into which the nine wooden coffins had been placed. The coffins contained a combination of human remains, and bits of their original coffins. In keeping with African funerary customs, the deceased were carefully wrapped in white cloth by women elders. The coffins were arranged so the etchings on the lid formed a heart, which had been adopted as a symbol of the Portsmouth African Burying Ground Memorial Park. Dirt, taken from Portsmouth, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe had been used to consecrate them. Ashes to Ashes. Dust to Dust.

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[1] Kwasi Wiredu, “Death and the Afterlife in African Culture,” (1987). Accessed 25 May 2015.

[2] See especially Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of Religious Myth (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1993); and Christopher Cameron, To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2014).

8 comments on “On Remembrance and Resurrection: Commemorating Portsmouth’s (NH) African Burying Ground

  1. Historiann says:

    Thanks for reporting on this, Jessica. Did you see Terri Snyder there? She’s the author of The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America (U. of Chicago Press, 2015), which will be published on July 22. (You might consider her for an author interview or a book review!) Her new book features a free woman who ended up in New Hampshire, and I know she was excited that her trip would overlap the dedication of the burial ground in Portsmouth.

    I like the incorporation of a female form in the memorial as well as its emphasis on family connections, but isn’t it interesting (and drearily predictable) that the sculptor and/or the monument’s commissioners decided to put the male figure on the front/entrance side? It’s of course women who represented greater continuity in families and with children than the men, but then there is of course the politics of representing African American families as fatherless or with diminished men & manhood. (Why, I wonder, wasn’t there a way of representing the family as larger and more diverse than just the heterosexual unit?)

  2. Kami Fletcher says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this and allowing us to, too, carry the memory of these Africans – their lives, loses, and lineage

  3. Sharon Wood says:

    Thanks for highlighting this event. I was there with Terri Snyder, and we were both deeply moved. Some observations: the two figures are not husband and wife, but Mother Africa and an enslaved man in America. Thus, it does not privilege the heterosexual family unit. Also, the morning light hits the male figure in the included photo, making him seem more prominent. Visit in the afternoon, and the female figure is highlighted. (He faces east, toward Africa; she west, toward America.) Neither is at the “front,” as the memorial can be entered from either end of the closed street.

    • Jessica Parr says:

      Thank you. It was so crowded. I was just on the other side of the path through the crowd (next to the cart that brought the coffins). With the crowds and noise, I may have misheard some of Meadows’s comments. And there may perhaps have been additional comments in the celebration afterward (which I was unable to attend). I will fix my discussion of the monument.

  4. Terri Snyder says:

    I agree with Sharon’s observations about the male and female figures. By the way, the African Burying Ground Portsmouth posted your piece on their FB site and offer more information on the West African Sankofa symbol that is used as a motif on the coffins as well as in the memorial park.

    Thanks for writing about this, Jessica, I’m sorry that our paths did not cross in Portsmouth. If it would be useful, I’d be happy to share with you my thoughts on the reburial vigil, ceremony, and celebration.

  5. Thanks for the article. We were in Portsmouth last October for the first time and loved it so much that we’re going back with our 2 adult children for a week in August. It sounds like they accomplished this in a very dignified and contrite way. I believe that undertaking to bring people together is so necessary today, and it sounds like that was accomplished. Looking forward to visiting the Memorial.

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