By Deborah Mcdermott June 07, 2013 1:51 PM
PORTSMOUTH — A “centuries overdue” wrong was righted at the Discover Portsmouth Center on Friday, when Gov. Maggie Hassan signed into law a bill posthumously freeing 14 city slaves.
Amid a crowd that included many local and New Hampshire African Americans, Hassan said she was “grateful and privileged” to be in Portsmouth to sign the law.
1779 slave petition
The final paragraph of the petition reads as follows:
“Therefore, your humble slaves most devoutly pray for the sake of our injured liberty; for the sake of justice, humanity and the rights of mankind; for the honor of religion; and by all that is dear, that your honors would graciously interpose in our behalf and enact such laws and regulations as you in your wisdom think property, whereby we may regain our liberty and be ranked in the class of free agents and that the name of slave may not more be heard in a land gloriously contending for the sweets of freedom; and your humble slaves as in duty bound will ever pray.”
The law frees Portsmouth slaves who first petitioned the state for freedom in 1779. Twenty signed the petition but six were subsequently freed.
Hassan said the slaves lived at the time of the Revolutionary War — in fact some served in that war — and knew well the words of the Declaration of Independence signed just years earlier.
“These 20 slaves from Portsmouth knew those inalinable rights applied to them as well. They, too, wanted to share in the freedom the colonies were seeking,” she said.
Their petition before the General Assembly — the precursor to the N.H. Legislature — “fell on deaf ears and 14 died as slaves. It’s a source of deep shame that our predecessors didn’t honor that request,” she said.
Gov. Maggie Hassan signs a bill Friday in Portsmouth posthumously emancipating 14 slaves during a ceremony at the Discover Portsmouth Center.Deb Cram photo
The bill signed into law by Hassan was submitted by state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth. Clark was first contacted by Tom Watson, the president of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
Watson said when he was a child, he always wanted a “do over” on a test or a baseball game. “Most of the time, we never get to have a ‘do over.’ But last fall, I was thinking about this petition and I wondered, would it be possible to do over this mistake?”
Watson said the passage of the bill — unanimously in both the Senate and House — is important because “rights a wrong, sends a contemporary message that New Hampshire supports freedom and liberty for all its citizens” and “it is a public acknowledgement of a mistake, which is the first step toward reconciliation.”
African American historian Valerie Cunningham, who wrote about the petition in her book “Black Portsmouth,” urged those in attendance to remember that the petition sought freedom not just for the 20 signers but for all enslaved people.
The petitioners, property of the most elite members of Portsmouth society, “used their access to power not for back wages or for reparation for a stolen youth or for being separated from their loved ones. They didn’t just ask for personal freedom, they also asked that the slave be known no more in this state,” she said. “I hope we don’t forget the other men, and the women and children who were enslaved in this state.”
Fuller Clark said the action by Hassan was “another piece in (the state’s) progress in recognizing that everyone needs to be treated equally.” She said the bill gained national recognition as it wended its way through the Legislature, in large part because 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
She read the final paragraph of the petition aloud, which calls on the General Assembly to “interpose on our behalf” so that the slaves may “be ranked in the class of free agents.”
“What’s moving and startling is how contemporary that language is today,” she said. “They are words we should take into our hearts and into the hearts of our countrymen.”
Also at the ceremony, Hassan honored the state’s first African American legislator, Henry B. Richardson, who served two terms in the 1970s and died in 1981 at the age of 66.
Attending the ceremony was his daughter, the Rev. Renee Rouse of Deerfield, one of her eight children and several of her grandchildren.
Asked what her father would have said about receiving the proclamation, she didn’t hesitate. “He’d say, ‘It’s about time!.’”