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Valerie Cunningham: Chronicler of Black Portsmouth's History

Published Monday May 22, 2023

Author Angela Matthews, The Black Heritage Trail of NH

Valerie Cunningham: Chronicler of Black Portsmouth's History

As a teenager growing up in Portsmouth, Valerie Cunningham was proud of her family’s African American heritage, but she was also curious about local Black history. While working at Portsmouth Public Library, she discovered Brewster’s Rambles About Portsmouth. From Brewster’s stories about local Blacks, Valerie found clues to a history that until then had been invisible. She began a quest that would consume the rest of her life as researcher, historian and chronicler of Black Portsmouth from 1645 to present day.

Valerie spent years documenting the stories of Africans and Black Americans through probate and church records, from broadsides and news archives at the Portsmouth Athenaeum and from oral histories she conducted with several Portsmouth Black elders.

More than any other individual, Valerie brought momentous change to Portsmouth and New Hampshire. Her work has influenced how the earliest African Americans are perceived, as courageous, determined, philanthropic and — most important – arriving on the block in 1645. She is described by local historian Dennis Robinson as the person who changed everything, referring to her book Black Portsmouth as “the bible.”

In addition to her achievements as a public historian and preservationist, Valerie was also a founding member of the Seacoast Council on Race and Religion (SCORR) convened by St. John’s Episcopal Church and a diversity of community activists in response to the March 7, 1965 assault on civil rights demonstrators walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on what became known as Bloody Sunday. Meanwhile, Valerie also served a term as branch secretary of the Seacoast National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which her parents had helped to start in 1959.

Cunningham’s first publication describing slavery in the colonial seaport appeared in the quarterly journal, Historic New Hampshire, in 1989. During the 1990s, Valerie’s work was expanded as a curriculum guide with co-author, Mark J. Sammons, and distributed to the region’s schools and libraries; then, again with Sammons, the book Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African American Heritage was published in 2004. In addition, Valerie led efforts to establish the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail with the installation of two dozen bronze historic site markers all around Portsmouth. Her purpose in documenting and making visible this forgotten past is to remind us all of what is possible.

Angela Matthews has volunteered for  PBHT and BHTNH since the 1990s.  She has served as a tour guide, grant writer, fundraiser, and speaker and was an incorporator of PBHT in the 1990s and in 2016 an incorporator of BHTNH, then serving on the first board of directors. 

This article is part of an ongoing series aimed at highlighting and honoring the stories of notable Black historical figures and families who helped shape New Hampshire and Maine. These stories were originally collected by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire for a project with the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire. Stories are being shared with the partners in The Granite State News Collaborative."

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