Ona Marie Judge, enslaved in the household of Martha and George Washington, liberated herself by escaping to the Black community of Portsmouth in 1796. There, she gained shelter if not manumission, evading efforts by Washington to persuade or force her to return to his household.
In an interview given to an abolitionist newspaper in 1845, she said, “Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.”
In 1796, President Washington instructed Oliver Wolcott, the Secretary of the Treasury, to pursue Judge’s re-capture. Wolcott in turn appealed to Joseph Whipple, Portsmouth’s collector of customs. After interviewing Judge, Whipple wrote to Washington that she had fled based on “a thirst for compleat freedom” and would not return voluntarily without at least a pledge that she would be emancipated upon the death of George and Martha. Whipple also noted the presence of a significant number of self-liberated former slaves living in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where “the popular opinion here in favor of universal freedom has rendered it difficult to get them back to their masters.”
Judge married Jack Staines, a free Black sailor, in Portsmouth in 1797. After Staines was lost at sea, the widowed Ona Marie Judge Staines lived with a free Black family in Greenland, where she died and was buried in 1848.
To learn more, read Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (37 Ink, 2017).
Born in Milford, New Hampshire, in 1825, Harriet E. Adams Wilson is known as the first person of African descent to publish a novel in the United States. Wilson’s book, Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of A Free Black, published in 1859, is believed to be closely based on her harsh experience in near-slavery in a northern New England household.
After years of obscurity, Wilson’s story and that of her novel were recovered by scholars and the Milford-based Harriet Wilson Project, which was formed in 2003.
As the Harriet Wilson Project describes,
“The novel unfolds with the six-year-old mulatto protagonist, Frado, being abandoned by her white mother and placed into indentured servitude. While in service to the Bellmont family, Frado is cruelly abused by Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter, Mary. Not even the sympathetic members of the family intervene on her behalf. Frado endures this harsh abuse for 12 years until she reaches her majority and earns her freedom at age eighteen.”
Interestingly, Milford itself was considered a hotbed of abolitionist activity, which included at least one massive rally during the time Wilson was indentured.
According to the Harriet Wilson Project, Wilson wrote Our Nig in the 1850s while working as a seamstress, house servant, and vendor of hair products in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She started a business, “Mrs. H.E. Wilson’s Hair Dressing,” based in Manchester and later moved to the Boston area, where she was active in spiritualist circles.
The Harriet Wilson Project now promotes historic walking tours of Milford and provides other information on Wilson and her historic novel. A statue of Harriet Wilson with her son George Mason Wilson, created by the late Fern Cunningham, now sits in Bicentennial Park in Milford.
“Since 1874, Wentworth by the Sea has stood as a beacon of elegance among the grand Portsmouth, New Hampshire, hotels that once graced the coastline,” boasts the Historic Hotels website. “The waterfront enclave boasts an illustrious history, having hosted social, business, and political leaders from around the globe.”
“Illustrious history” indeed. James Barker Smith, who purchased the historic hotel in New Castle in 1946, enforced a policy of refusing service and employment to African Americans. “Nor were Jews, Greeks, or other minorities welcome as guests,” according to Mark Sammons and Valerie Cunningham, authors of Black Portsmouth.
The Wentworth wasn’t alone; racial discrimination was common in the world of high-end resorts. “In their heyday, the grand hotels catered to fashionable upper-class tourists who sought exclusivity, ambiance, indoor and outdoor entertainments, and the chance to be seen and admired. Guests of other ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds therefore, were not welcome to mix with the wealthy, white, Christian guests who frequented the hotels,” according to the Museum of the White Mountains. According to a 1964 article published by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, Jews were still barred from 56% of hotels in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire in 1957.
The Wentworth’s policy was not a casual one. In fact, the man Smith bought the hotel from, Harry Beckwith, contracted with an agency that checked the ethnic and religious background of would-be guests before taking their reservations. Smith was carrying on the tradition.
Nor was the policy a secret. Due to its prominence, the historic hotel became the target of local civil rights activists. Their act of strategic defiance made history.
Two days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants, members of the local NAACP initiated their strategic plan of action. That it was the Fourth of July was no coincidence.
As Sammons and Cunningham tell the story, university professor Hugh Potter and his wife, Jean, a White couple who lived in New Castle, made 7 PM reservations for “a party of four in the dining room” and paid in advance. “It was to be a major gala evening, to be hosted by the owner, himself, and proved to be a full house,” Jean Potter later recalled. When the Potters had arrived first, as planned, for their dinner reservation, they were joined by a Black couple, Emerson and Jane Reed, lifetime residents of the area. Emerson Reed also chaired the NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee. Meanwhile, The Rev. John and Betty Papendrew, another local white couple, had made their own reservations and were in place as observers for the NAACP.
After the Reeds resisted Smith’s anticipated instruction for them to eat in the kitchen, the owner argued it out in his office with Hugh Potter and Emerson Reed. Smith told them how much money he would lose if he served Black customers. Potter and Reed argued morality and law. After a long and heated debate, and Potter’s display of his receipt, the four diners were finally seated at the only open table. “The irony was that — beside our table on a large serving table — was the American flag, designed out of dinner mints,” recalls Jean Potter. “And guests had been encouraged to see it and help themselves. So we were not overlooked!”
“The following week,” write Sammons and Cunningham, “a different foursome from the NAACP, including a Black officer from Pease Air Force Base, repeated the whole process at the Wentworth and were seated without delay. Eventually the Wentworth-by-the-Sea employed Black people, too.”
“For a time the Smiths also owned the Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth and followed the same policies there, writes J. Dennis Robinson, author of Wentworth by the Sea: the Life and Times of a Grand Hotel. “In 1948 local filmmaker Louis de Rochemont produced one of the first major motion pictures to deal with the issue of race. De Rochemont shot part of the film ‘Lost Boundaries’ in the Seacoast using Black cast members and set up his operation at the Rockingham. When Jim Smith refused to let the Black cast members eat in that dining room, de Rochemont threatened to spend his money at another hotel, and Smith relented.”
Read more in Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage by Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham (UNH Press, 2004).
Three years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, twenty enslaved African-born men, all captured “when but children” and then living in Portsmouth, submitted their own petition for liberation from tyranny. Signed in Portsmouth on November 12, 1779 and formally submitted to the New Hampshire state legislature then meeting in Exeter on April 25, 1780, the petition from “natives of Africa, now forcibly detained in slavery” states “that Freedom is an inherent right of the human species not to be surrendered, but by consent.” Adapting the revolutionary ideology of the times to the cause of their own emancipation, the statement goes on to argue the case against chattel slavery, harnessing both logic and irony to the moment at hand.
“From what authority they [the slave owners] assume the power to dispose of our lives, freedom, and liberty we wish to know,” they stated. Did their authority stem from “the sacred volumes of Christianity?” “From the volumes of the law?” “From the volumes of nature?” The petitioners could find no such authority for slavery in those places, leaving “custom” as the sole remaining source. “If so,” they said, “let that custom be abolished which is not founded in nature, reason, nor religion.”
Reviewing the names of the 20 signatories, historians Mark Sammons and Valerie Cunningham speculate that the petition was drafted by members of the “Negro Court,” a community institution which chose its own leaders and was responsible for a degree of self-governance within the Black community.
The petition was accepted by the NH House of Representatives and its text published in the New Hampshire Gazette, a local paper, on July 15, 1780. But the legislators tabled any hearing on the petition. It wasn’t until 1857 that the state legislature implicitly abolished slavery by declaring, “No person, because of decent (sic), should be disqualified from becoming a citizen of the state.” The state explicitly endorsed an end to slavery by ratifying the 13th Amendment on July 1, 1865.
The 1779 petition for liberation returned to the public eye more than a century later when Senator Martha Fuller Clark of Portsmouth filed SB187, “posthumously emancipating 20 African-American New Hampshire slaves.” This time, the petition met favor in both Senate and House and was signed into law by Governor Maggie Hassan on July 11, 2013. No mention was made of the hundreds of African Americans who had remained enslaved across the state of New Hampshire for 86 more years after the original writing of this petition.
For more information, read Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage by Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham (UNH Press, 2004) and visit the Black Heritage Trail of NH.
Noyes Academy, a short-lived experiment in inter-racial coeducation, operated for several months in 1835 in Canaan NH until it was forced to close by local racists.
The founders included Canaan residents, other New Hampshire abolitionists, and abolitionists from Boston, Portland, and New York. George Kimball, a Canaan attorney who was among the founders and housed students in his home, wrote, “It is unhappily true, that the colored portion of our fellow citizens, even in the free States, while their toil and blood have contributed to establish, and their taxes equally with those of whites to maintain our free system of Education, have practically been excluded from the benefits of it. This institution proposes to restore, so far as it can, to this neglected and injured class, the privileges of literary, moral and religious instruction.”
“We regard with approbation the plan of establishing schools that will not, either by form of law or of prejudice oftentimes stronger than law, exclude colored youth from a participation in their benefits; and the proposed Academy in Canaan in this state, with reference to the principle, meets our views, and is recommended to the countenance and support of the friends of the people of color,” offered the just-formed NH Anti-Slavery Society. The school was promoted in William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator.
When Noyes Academy opened in March 1835, it enrolled 28 white and 17 Black students, both boys and girls, including several who had attended the African Free School in New York. Students lived in the homes of teachers. Their courses of study were to focus either on English or Classics. The white students were mostly local, while Black students came from as far away as Philadelphia and had to endure degrading segregated travel to reach Canaan.
When the NH Anti-Slavery Society held its first annual meeting in Concord that June, Thomas Paul, Jr., a Noyes Academy student from Boston with New Hampshire family ties, was an official member of the Canaan delegation. Alexander Crummell, Henry Highland Garnet, and Thomas Sidney, all graduates of the African Free School who attended Noyes, also gave impressive speeches to the NH Anti-Slavery Society at an 1835 meeting in Plymouth.
The school sparked resistance right away, including unfavorable coverage in The Concord Patriot, which took offense at white workers serving a racially mixed group of students at Kimball’s home. “Since the establishment of the school, it has been no uncommon spectacle to witness colored gentlemen walking arm in arm with what ought to be respectable white females. And that respectable people opposed to the school, as well as others, have been invited to parties where the colored portion of the school were also invited guests,” complained the Patriot. By the end of July, the Town had voted for the school to be closed.
The experiment came to a violent end on August 10, when a mob of hundreds approached the school. Garnet picked up a rifle and fired shots at rioters who approached the Kimball home, where he was living. But enraged men from the surrounding area had brought 90 or more teams of oxen, which they hitched to the school building and dragged it off its foundation. An article from the Concord Patriot, reprinted by Garrison in The Liberator, notes that the lawless mob included “many of the most wealthy and respected farmers of this and the adjacent towns.” A month later they moved it again. Later it was torched.
As for the students, the Black students were quietly evacuated from Canaan the night of the attack. But it is important to note that Crummell, Garnet, Sidney, and Paul all went on to prominent roles in the abolition movement, as did Julia Williams, one of the two Black female students. Garnet and Williams later married.
The story of Noyes Academy reminds us of the profound beliefs held by the radical abolitionists, who believed in equality and access to education across lines of both race and gender. It also stands as a disturbing reminder that New Hampshire’s history includes vicious racists as well as revolutionary democrats.
A roadside plaque now marks the site where Noyes Academy once stood.
The Canaan Historical Society has a Noyes Academy Study Group, which has published its findings online.