ARUN RATH, HOST:
If you think slavery in America was just a Southern thing, you're wrong. This Memorial Day weekend, a city in New England is recognizing its own history of slavery. A forgotten burial ground was uncovered during routine roadwork in Portsmouth, N. H. Now the site is becoming a memorial park. New Hampshire Public Radio's Emily Corwin reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM MUSIC)
EMILY CORWIN, BYLINE: Two men are sliding nine pine coffins into a vault in the ground here on Chestnut Street in the city's quaint downtown. The remains were disinterred 13 years ago. Now they return to lie among 200 other long-forgotten men and women. One would've been a free woman in West Africa at the end of the 18th century. But when she stepped off the boat onto what is now Prescott Park in Portsmouth, she was likely sold to a white New Hampshire family. At least, principal archaeologist Kathleen Wheeler says that's her best guess.
KATHLEEN WHEELER: Well, there's one individual who had only her lower jaw, and she had the incisors removed from the lower jaw, probably as a - as a teenager. And this is a right they do commonly in West Africa.
CORWIN: The other eight may have been free or enslaved people. The bones are so decomposed, it's hard to tell. What Wheeler can see from the remains is that they had African origins. Their bodies were worn from toil, and few survived past their 20s. But slavery in New Hampshire, says onlooker Jack Panopoulos...
JACK PANOPOULOS: Generally, you tend to think - or I did - that it was more of a Southern problem.
CORWIN: That's the misconception Georgia-based artist and sculptor Jerome Meadows says he hopes his work will recast.
JEROME MEADOWS: The setting creates a context in which to reimagine or shift your focus from the misrepresentation into the reality of what actually is here.
CORWIN: The one-and-a-half-million-dollar memorial park was built with some federal grants and a lot of community donations. Many are proud of the effort, but some, like lifelong resident Dan Mayo, wonder why a relatively prosperous city like Portsmouth didn't fund the memorial with property tax revenue.
DAN MAYO: They built over all of these graves and profited for hundreds of years. They collected taxes on all of these properties that line these streets. And at the very least, they could have footed bill to pay for this park.
KELVIN EDWARDS: It hasn't been exactly easy living here as an African-American in such a non-minority community.
CORWIN: Kelvin Edwards is the president of local African American Cultural Center, which makes him a prominent member of a very small community here. Fewer than two percent of Portsmouth's 20,000 residents are black. He's proud of this memorial.
EDWARDS: I think it helps to validate me as an individual to relate to these souls that have long gone and that have done so much and not to be recognized, you know, and, as a group, to just be just discounted.
CORWIN: Building a memorial to a long-forgotten burial ground won't fix our social struggles of today. But it can, as Edwards says, help us recognize that the past, we share. For NPR News, I'm Emily Corwin in Portsmouth, N. H.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.