Black Burial Site Paved Over in Portsmouth, N.H.
ED GORDON, host:
Three years ago, city workers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire discovered coffins buried under a downtown street. Tests and archeological reports confirmed that those buried were most likely colonial slaves. While old city maps once mark the gravesite, eventually the area was developed. Now, Portsmouth officials want to build a memorial to honor those buried there. New Hampshire Public Radio's Amy Quinton reports.
AMY QUINTON reporting:
A black SUV sits at a parking meter on Chestnut Street in busy downtown Portsmouth. As resident and black historian Valerie Cunningham walks by the SUV, she stops and points to the parking meter. This is the spot where city workers discovered 13 coffins buried in the ground in 2003.
Ms. VALERIE CUNNINGHAM (Historian): The parking meter is exactly over five coffins, and the person who is parked there may or may not know. But, yeah, this is what we've been living with since 2003.
QUINTON: Portsmouth workers discovered the burials while digging a manhole for a sewer project. Archeologists removed eight of the coffins before construction resumed. DNA tests confirmed the remains were four African men, one female, one juvenile, and two others whose sex and age could not be determined.
Cunningham suspected all along that the bodies were there. A 1705 city map showed the area as a Negro burying ground.
Ms. CUNNINGHAM: There had been oral histories; there had been written references in the local newspaper to this burial ground. What we did not have was physical evidence. And this is what made it so very exciting. I never expected to see this in my lifetime, because I never expected them to dig up the street.
QUINTON: Cunningham, who has spent three decades documenting the city's African American history, had erected a plaque on a nearby house in 2000 to mark the cemetery. But discovering the physical evidence of the gravesite only led to more questions about the people buried there.
Ms. CUNNINGHAM: Well, we don't know their identity. We don't know whose family they were connected to. We don't know where they came from, if they were born here. We don't really know anything.
QUINTON: But archeologists say the discovery reveals more than expected. Lead archeologist, Kathleen Wheeler, is with Independent Archeological Consulting. She says that historians have long believed that most enslaved African Americans were too poor to be buried in coffins. But that's not what they found in Portsmouth.
Ms. KATHLEEN WHEELER (Archeologist, Independent Archeological Consulting): We discovered that they were put in coffins built in the same fashion they were using for white people. Not only that, they dug the whole with enough care that they dug into bedrock to put the coffin base down nice and flat.
QUINTON: Wheeler believes a community of Africans, that's what they called themselves then, helped dig these graves. But by the early 1800s, the cemetery no longer appeared on city maps. In its place were houses. It's unclear whether city leaders back then intentionally paved over the site, but researcher Ellen Marlatt, with Independent Archeological Consulting, says at one point Portsmouth leaders must have known the cemetery existed.
When the coffins were unearthed in 2003, a sewer line went straight through the bodies.
Ms. ELLEN MARLATT (Researcher, Independent Archeological Consulting): It was a pretty dramatic scene. A sewer line went down the West Lane of Chestnut Street; it was probably installed in the 1890s, maybe up to about 1900. And it was hand dug, and the workers had dug it through the middle of four of the burials that we observed in the field.
QUINTON: There was no concern then about preservation. But that's not the case now, says Portsmouth Assistant City Manager Cindy Hayden.
Ms. CINDY HAYDEN (Assistant City Manger, Portsmouth, New Hampshire): There is some feeling of this is tragic that these people were just paved over without recognition. Now, is their chance to make it right.
QUINTON: The city formed a committee of community members both black and white to determine what should happen to the remains and how to memorialize the site. And while the exact design isn't complete, Hayden says they're considering narrowing the street to one lane to make room for a memorial.
Ms. HAYDEN: We think it's going to be about $100,000 project to close off this part of the street, install a memorial there, create a green space, lighting, and just a really nice, dignified place.
QUINTON: The eight bodies are being held at a secure location until the space is ready. They will then be put back in the ground in Portsmouth where they were placed with such care 300 years ago. Archeologists say there could be as many as 200 more slaves buried under Chestnut Street.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Quinton.