Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail
Enslaved marines were part of the Portsmouth scene by 1727. They worked mostly in the Atlantic coastal and West Indies trades, and some sailed in the Revolution. In freedom, black Yankees continued working at this dangerous and undesirable occupation in numbers disproportionate to their portion of the total population. Most black people in Portsmouth lived within a few blocks of the river. Jobs as mariners, stevedores and truckmen were available in places like Ceres Street, which is little changed since 1805. At sea, the need to cooperate for safety in severe conditions and for mutual support against harsh captains fostered inter-racial egalitarianism and friendships. Employers gave equal pay and rank to qualified black mariners; some became officers on New England's dangerous whaling ships. The reasonable pay enabled them to purchase modest homes, raise families, start businesses, or move to more promising towns. Mid-century brought change. Responsibility for hiring crews shifted from owners or captains to shipping masters, who hired white mariners over black. By 1850, black men at sea were limited to the roles of cook, steward, or cabin servant. By the 1860s black mariners were remembered as a feature of Portsmouth's past; a long tradition had ended.
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