Black Heroes, White Poets
I want to tell you about three poems. They're pretty bad poems, I'm afraid, but within them are great stories, rarely told, of black history in the Seacoast. The first is the tale of Ona Judge Staines of Greenland. This one has TV-miniseries written all over it. Ona, you see, was enslaved by George and Martha Washington.
A maid of Martha Washington, a little kid,
And almost white; she had some help and found a way
To make escape upon a schooner down the bay.
According to Greenland poet M. O. Hall, Ona became a fugitive runaway while the first president was serving his final term. She stowed away on a ship to Portsmouth, married a local "black jack" or sailor and lived out her life here.
Ona's father was a white indentured servant at Mount Vernon, her mother an African slave adept at textile work. She escaped from Philadelphia in 1796 aboard the ship Nancy bound for Portsmouth. This added detail comes from Evelyn Gerson who is writing a book about Ona. Gerson lives in San Francisco, but sent me some material after reading this column on the Internet. According to Gerson, Ona was free, but never safe. Washington made repeated attempts to recapture her because Mrs. Washington wanted Ona back. He tried to persuade Portsmouth's Revolutionary war heroes William Whipple and John Langdon to return Ona. Both men were slave owners, but feared a public relations debacle. Ona outlived Washington by nearly half a century, learned to read, raised three children, lived in her Greenland house and died in 1848.
Portsmouth poet Clara Lynn was born two years later in 1851, though she enjoyed most of her local literary fame for books she published while in her 70s during the city's 300th anniversary. Among her "Poems of Portsmouth" is the ballad "The Hidden Gold." It tells the story of John Frances, a "black jack" who worked for the Haven brothers who owned a shipping firm in town. During the War of 1812, Frances (some say "Francis") was aboard the Haven's ship "Princess" when it was attacked by privateers.
According to Lynn's sing-song poem, published in a book after her death in 1929, Frances knew that the Haven family had a bag of gold hidden on board the boat. In an ingenious maneuver, the sailor located his employer's gold and hid it in a bucket of grease aboard the merchant sailing ship. Frances was eventually released by the privateers and he asked if he might take the bucket to sell the grease ashore for a few cents. He got his wish and carried the weighty bucket all the way back to the rightful owners.
But was surprised when told
That fifteen thousand dollars bright,
Lay in that bag of gold.
Clara Lynn suggests, and it is hard to disagree, that John Frances is a full blown hero. The Haven brothers felt so too, and presented him with a house that still stands on Union Street in Portsmouth. It's part of the evolving Black Heritage Trail today.
Both Lynn and Hall make little of their protagonist's race. Certainly Ona Judge Staines is pictured as a light-skinned slave, and John Frances as "a colored man on board the ship." Likely black people who appeared light and loyal were less threatening to these white authors. But there is the real sense in both poems that the story is about strong characters who act bravely and wisely.
Not so for Celia Thaxter, author of the children's poem "The Connoisseurs." I stumbled on this one myself, flipping through an archive of Isles of Shoals volumes. I was struck instantly by the image of two black children, rare in any local book from the late 19th century, but unheard of in the works of Isles of Shoals poet Celia Thaxter. In the drawing, both children are staring at a large painting on an easel. We cannot see the painting, so Celia describes it for us:
How they hurry and trample and fight!
And the smoke blowing over the steeple,--
O look, how the guns shine bright!
The children are looking at a painting of a famous battle. "Isn't this what the white folks call the war?" they ask. Yes, it is, Celia tells the children, reminding them of all the poor men lost in the bloodiest battle in American history. Then the Island poet hits the children with both barrels:
They killed each other, the gray and the blue?
O dusky children, it was for you!
Talk about a guilt trip! But there you have it. As condescending and politically incorrect as her explanation reads today, Celia was simply voicing a commonly held northern myth - that the entire Civil War was fought to free the slaves. The poem was written in 1874 when the massive tragic wastefulness of the long bloody war was still embedded in the national karma. It was as easy to blame African Americans for "causing" the war, as it had been for centuries for Christians to blame Jews for killing Christ. It is always easy to blame the victim, especially when you outnumber them ten to one.
It gets harder to blame the victim, however, when you know the whole story and It's been a good year for black history in New Hampshire. We got Martin Luther King Day. Sure we were the last state to legislate the official holiday, but the great embarrassment is over. UNH Professor Jeffrey Bolster's book on black sailors was a featured selection of the History Book Club. Our black history web pages kept pulling in awards and tens of thousands of readers. Valerie Cunningham, creator of the Portsmouth Black History Trail, was recognized as one of the state's top six influential women.
It's still a battle by inches, but finally the revisionists are gaining ground. Even in a state that is just one percent African American, there is the dawning realization that the tales of an oppressed minority shed a great new light on the history we thought we knew. At this rate, before the century is out, we may come to accept the stories of other invisible New Hampshire minorities - like women, children, gays, Native Americans, immigrants, other ethnic groups. But let's not get carried away.
The great truth of black history is that African Americans were here in New England from the start. They share the entire scope of European-American history, from the arrival of the first slaves in the early 1600s. Slavery wasn't just, as Yankees used to say, "a southern thing." Thus the study of black New Hampshire reflects nearly 400 years of white history. The only way to cure racism is to look it full in the face, and so every bit of illumination helps. And that's why these three mediocre little poems are so important. They tell us we are all together, everybody of every color, on this crazy rocket ship called Earth. We have been together, one way or another, from the start. We will be together, one way or another, to the very end.
By J. Dennis Robinson
Read about early Black History in New Hampshire
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