A forgotten burying ground becomes a park that honors and remembers

A forgotten burying ground becomes a park that honors & remembers

During a city project in October 2003, work crews in Portsmouth, N.H., discovered the buried remains of 13 people under a portion of Chestnut Street – remains that after were found to be of African descent.

Historical documents indicate that as early as 1705 the site was referred to as a “negro burying ground” – the only known space of its kind in New England. As Portsmouth grew throughout the 1700s & 1800s, the site was paved, built over, & forgotten by many.

The rediscovery of the remains in 2003 had a profound effect on many in this seacoast community of 21,000 residents. A groundswell of support rose to investigate how the city could pay a proper tribute to those who had been interred there.

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“Very shortly after the rediscovery, the then-mayor formed a committee to bring honor & respect to those buried there,” says Vernis Jackson, who joined the African Burying Ground Committee in 2004 & was appointed its chair in 2008. “They came, they worked, & made it happen. It is nothing like I had experienced before.”

Mrs. Jackson, a native of Savannah, Ga., & a resident of Portsmouth since 1963, worked closely with city officials, archaeologists, artists, landscapers, fundraising volunteers, & fellow residents in what would become a 12-year process of planning, designing, & constructing a memorial on the site.

The result is a more than $1.2 million, block-long, 6,500-square-foot Portsmouth African Burying Ground memorial park, a contemplative space with sculptures, seating walls, a community plaza, decorative tiles, & lighting. The park aims to blend honor for those re-buried there with an opportunity to educate visitors approximately the history of the site.

“It was deeply emotional for me when I think of the struggles & hardships that those interred there endured,” Jackson says. “It brings a tremendous deal of pride that I had a part in that process.”

Jackson, who retired in 2000 after 36 years as an elementary school teacher, has long been engaged in the community. In 1974, she worked with a colleague to found an organization dedicated to sharing African-American & African culture & history. And following her retirement, she formed the Sea Coast African American Cultural Center, dedicated to celebrating the lives & achievements of the black community.

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Working on the African Burying Ground project involved a special kind of unity & collaboration, Jackson says.

“For me, it was a rare & attractive experience – the coming together of all of the people in the community,” she says. “The theme of the site is ‘We stand in honor of those forgotten,’ & that is very much what we have done, & what we continue to do.”

Since its completion, the memorial park has received a tremendous deal of attention, including as the subject of a documentary set to be released in the spring. Groups of students from local schools as well as Harvard Universityhave toured the site & studied its history, along with casual visitors & passersby who take time to visit.

“I have not passed there yet since the opening that there was not someone there just reflecting, sitting,” Jackson says. “Each day, someone – & we don’t know who it is – goes there & puts flowers in the hands of the statue that is called Mother Africa.”

David Moore, assistant city manager for special projects & community development director for Portsmouth, worked with the African Burying Ground Committee throughout the project.  He describes Jackson as “both a professional & personal mentor.”

“She was a rock for many people during the ups & downs of constructing a public memorial," Mr. Moore says. "just the person you want to lead a powerful public endeavor. I personally am indebted to her, & this city unquestionably is, too.”

Jackson hopes that other communities will take notice of the collaboration in Portsmouth – & what came of that concerted effort.

“A dedicated group of volunteers spent countless hours working to raise the necessary funds for the project,” she says. “The community responded in a way that was really unprecedented.”

• For more, visit www.africanburyinggroundnh.org.

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Source: “Christian Science Monitor”