African Burying Ground Memorial Park

NEFA Award Recipient

Portsmouth, NH

Contact Name
Chris Dwyer
Project Dates
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2017
After the unexpected revealing of a more than 300-year old burying ground for African and African-descended people underneath a City street, the City of Portsmouth, NH closed and transformed the street into an evocative public gathering space to acknowledge its past and to return the site to sacred ground. With original works of outdoor public art at its core the site has become a focal point for telling a more complete story of Portsmouth’s history and reflecting on the site’s lessons for our current age. The site has stimulated national attention to Portsmouth as a site for African American tourism, calling attention to and uniting other important historic sites.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
The initial challenge and goal was finding a way to appropriately reclaim and memorialize the site of the rediscovered burial sites which had become a City street with surrounding businesses and residences. We needed to engage members the descendant community and build consensus on an appropriate strategy for closing the street and selecting the appropriate aesthetic treatment.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Once we had a plan, we needed to build political and public will to carry it out which involved a long process of education about the history of slavery in colonial New England, many uncomfortable conversations about race, and raising $1.2M to complete the project. The goals moved from being about raising funds for and completing a physical project to finding ways to bring community members together in a "healing" way--strengthening bonds among individuals, Black and White, in our community.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
This project required many partners, among the major ones: the City of Portsmouth, the Seacoast African American Cultural Center, the Black Heritage Trail, the local newspaper, the public school system, the library, the Portsmouth Historical society and Discover Center, a nationally known African American sculptor, the neighborhood (all of the abutters were significant financial contributors), a landscape architect, archeologists, the state’s historic preservation office, the Music Hall, Strawbery Banke museum, and a landscape/construction firm. The roles included design and planning, including public input; permitting; public education; fundraising; events; construction; and ceremony.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
The project relates to Portsmouth’s commitment to telling the full story of our history and our people, including those stories that have remained untold or forgotten, as part of building community identity and strengthening the bonds among community members. Authenticity is the hallmark of Portsmouth’s identity, why local people are passionate about Portsmouth, and a major attractor for tourists and visitors. The African Burying ground story and the story of slavery and the contributions of free and enslaved African Americans were missing pieces. Completing this project at a time of national racial tension was healing for our community. We have also found that pairing arts and history together is a strategy to create deep meaning.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
We were inspired by the major African American burying ground in New York City and by earlier community arts-history projects in Portsmouth that were healing in their processes, especially the Shipyard Project that featured a two-year exploration through dance of the history of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and its meaning to the community.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
First, residents of Portsmouth voted to close Chestnut Street to vehicular traffic. During the following years, the African Burying Ground Committee (a racially diverse group appointed by the mayor) worked with city officials and employed artisans, archeologists and architects to imagine a public space that would celebrate the humanity of those buried there. The process involved public input sessions and a national call for artists. When Jerome Meadows was selected as the primary artist-designer, the committee worked closely with him to refine aspects of the project. As planning of the site began, a separate group of fundraising volunteers came together to raise the $1.2 million necessary. The fundraising volunteers planned a number of events that called attention to the project and its importance while raising dollars. When the fundraising reached the $1million mark, a process of solicitation for bids for contractors who could execute work on the sensitive site began. In May 2015 the site was dedicated in a weekend of ceremonies including an all night vigil. All along the development path, the committee and volunteers worked on public information releases to provide context for African American history in New England and that work continues.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Over time, we learned about the importance of continuing education for the full public about the role of slavery in New England and the role of free and enslaved Blacks in our community historically--many people had never realized there was slavery in New England.

We also learned that it was important to give everyone a chance to contribute to the project--not to raise money quickly but rather to extend the options for many people to build buy-in.

We built on what we learned along the way to build educational public events. Examples: we talked the legislature and Governor into responding to the petition for freedom that slaves had brought to the NH legislature in 1789 which had never been acted upon; we engaged middle school students in developing designs for tiles with Adinkra symbols that became a design for a fence at the Burying Ground.

Our sculptor Jerome Meadows connected deeply to the community and was such a powerful artistic voice, we engaged him in ongoing activities to continue deepening the meaning of the project, e.g., a poetry project.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
1. The first obstacle was developing an appropriate message that would be authentic, inclusive, and hopeful and would speak to people of all races. The message we developed served us well: It is not about Black history or White history, it is OUR history.
2. We had to overcome skepticism that we could raise the money to finish the project.
3. Given that we have a small African American population, we needed to develop White spokespersons who were comfortable talking to others about the project and its importance.
4. We don't have much of a history of public art in our community so we needed first to convince people that there should be a public art component (and then raise $ for the public art).
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
1. We did interviews and focus groups at the outset to gather information that could help us shape messages and also understand what people needed to know to be supportive of the project.
2. We paired arts activities with fundraising: a candlelight sing by the Soweto Gospel choir on the site, a play by an African American playwright about his journey back to Africa, an acted dialogue between a local Governor and his slave, drumming and songs on the site, a Juneteenth celebration, and so forth. We engaged folks emotionally in this manner.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Before you start, take time to understand how people already think about the project, what they think obstacles might be, what misunderstandings might be, where sensitivities lie--use interviews and small focus groups.
2. Directly engage the press and ask for their support and partnership in educating the public.
3. Pair arts and education with fundraising. Connect people to history and concepts emotionally through arts activities.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Portsmouth has been highlighted in national press as a site for Black tourism and we have seen many types of visitors much sooner than we expected who see the Burying Ground as a destination. This has occurred during a time of racial tension in our country and given local citizens a point of pride.

The completion of the project and its celebration has been very important to African Americans in our community who have found this project to communicate welcome and belonging-ness. In a state with a small Black population, this project became a magnet for gatherings associated with events important in the African American calendar and for other gatherings with deep meaning.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
The project was completed on time and within budget to great local acclaim. Immediately after dedication, we started to receive national press about the site, including from early visitors from other locales who were moved by what they experienced.
How did you measure this success or progress?
We raised more $ than the original goal--all dollars raised locally with amounts ranging from $5 to $250,000.
Large turnouts at all events associated with the project.
Others have picked up the Black tourism focus and publicized: the NH Division of Travel and Tourism has presented the Burying Ground as the centerpiece of African American tourism; the NH Tourism public relations agency in NYC has highlighted the Burying Ground to national media; the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce has included the Burying Ground in its tourism and group travel outreach and media relations; we have seen Increasing numbers of African American travel writers visit Portsmouth and write about both the Burying Ground and the Black Heritage Trail; Strawbery Banke Museum has begun to incorporate the stories of enslaved Africans who lived in the neighborhood in the ongoing (and possibly expanding) interpretation of history in Portsmouth. Academics have visited (some with graduate classes) and written about the honest presentation of challenging history.

Please describe any unexpected impacts:
People are often at the site--day or night. Flowers are left at the base of figures constantly. The site has been used for various gatherings. Across the street is a large housing project for low income elders and individuals with disabilities--they have become the guardians of the site. One resident told me she goes there everyday to say her prayers.
CCX Workshop Handout

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