CONCORD, N.H.- In 1779, Prince Whipple and a small group of other New Hampshire slaves petitioned the state Legislature to free them.
Whipple eventually was freed by his owner, not the Legislature, which ignored the petition and did not ban slavery in New Hampshire until 1857. By then, census records showed no slaves remained in the state.
Now 230 years later, state Rep. Dr. David Watters wants New Hampshire to create a monument to acknowledge and commemorate New Hampshire’s slaves.
“There’s no public place we can acknowledge and recognize this history,” said Watters, D-Dover.
Watters’ bill would establish a commission to research the names and numbers of people enslaved in New Hampshire from 1645 to 1840, the year the last record of a slave was noted by a census-taker at B.G. Searle’s farm in Hollis.
The commission would designate a nonprofit organization to collect donations to pay for the monument. Watters believes the monument should be on or near the Statehouse complex, but will leave it to the commission to decide. The only state money Watters is requesting is for mileage for commission members to attend meetings.
“The state Legislature was the body responsible for laws that permitted slavery or finally ended it,” he said. “So, I think it is an issue of visibility in the state capitol.”
Watters noted there already are great monuments to freedom on the Statehouse ground- 19th century statesman and New Hampshire native Daniel Webster, a replica of the Liberty Bell and a more recent monument to fallen police officers.
“These are important public statements of our commitment to freedom. I think this would be an important companion to those,” he said.
Watters may face some resistance to placing the memorial on Statehouse grounds due to limited space. A dispute arose during plans for putting the law enforcement memorial across the street from the Statehouse was resolved when a mature tree was dug up and moved onto Statehouse grounds to make room for it.
Watters’ bill is still being readied for introduction to the House and a hearing this winter.
Dr. W. Jeffrey Bolster, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire, said some people don’t know that New Hampshire had slaves – though the numbers of slaves were not as large as in other New England states. Today, only about 1 percent of New Hampshire residents are Black.
In 1775 on the eve of the American Revolution, New Hampshire had 656 slaves compared with 5,000 in Massachusetts, 3,700 in Rhode Island and 6,400 in Connecticut, he said. While other Northern states abolished slavery in the late 1700s, New Hampshire largely ignored it and instead allowed it to wither as in institution until no slaves remained, he said.
Bolster believes New Hampshire was not immune to the thinking of the time that social hierarchies existed with White men who owned property at the top and indentured White servants and American Indian or African slaves at the bottom. The upper class assumed it would be served by social inferiors, he said.
As times changed, many of New Hampshire’s slaves became freed servants, though a few were sold, he said.
“For the most part, in the early 19th century, the institution (in New Hampshire) withered,” he said.
Donna Howell, director of the Washington-based American Slaves Foundation, said the foundation has no count on monuments to slavery in states and is focusing its effort on getting a national monument built.
Watters, an English professor at UNH, has done a lot of work on Black history and said he became inspired, in part, to seek a monument when he heard of author Toni Morrison’s effort to raise awareness.
The Toni Morrison Society’s Bench by The Road Project places steel benches at unmarked sites with significance in African-American history or sites in her novels about Blacks in America. The first bench was placed last year on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina, a primary point of entry for slaves entering North America. The benches are intended to give people a place to sit and reflect.
Bolster believes a monument in New Hampshire would create a consciousness about slavery and its role in America’s move to a society based on freedom, not strict social hierarchies.
“To suggest for a minute that slavery is less important in American history than war is preposterous, but how many monuments to war are there in our nation,” said Bolster.