N.H. law recognized Ona Judge Staines Day on May 21, 2022
New Hampshire officials are taking steps to honor Ona Judge Staines, a self-emancipated woman who fled enslavement from George and Martha Washington before settling down in Portsmouth.
Gov. Chris Sununu recently signed a law that retroactively declared May 21, 2022, Ona Judge Staines Day.
Originally introduced in 2021, the bill initially proposed celebrating the holiday on May 21 every year, “in honor of the day in 1796 on which the enslaved Ona Judge Staines seized her freedom from the President's house in Philadelphia where George and Martha Washington were at dinner, and in celebration of her eventually making her way to New Hampshire where she lived as a self-emancipated fugitive for the rest of her life.”
It also proposed renaming a terminal at the Portsmouth International Airport in her honor.
However, lawmakers later amended the bill to remove the airport provision and to only mark the holiday in 2022. The bill called on the governor to issue a proclamation asking New Hampshire residents to “observe the day with appropriate ceremonies and activities and call on schools to commemorate the day with appropriate educational activities” — but the final legislation wasn’t enrolled until May 26, five days after the holiday was supposed to be celebrated.
A spokesperson for Sununu’s office said they did not receive the legislation until June 20, but the governor is committed to honoring May 21 as Ona Judge Staines Day “every year he’s governor.” Sununu would also “welcome the Legislature’s support in putting this annual recognition into statute in the future,” they said.
Sonya Martino, who shares Ona Judge Staines’ story as a tour guide for the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, was thrilled to hear this important historical figure is officially getting the recognition she deserves.
But Martino said there’s more work to do when it comes to recognizing the historical contributions of non-white Granite Staters.
As a child, Martino said most of the historical figures in her history books in New Hampshire classrooms were white. She hopes that in the future, children will be able to learn about a more diverse group of stories, past and present.
“My hope is that people recognize the contributions of people that aren't white in this country,” Martino said.
Martino also said this work requires more than just adding new holidays, it also means acknowledging how people’s histories have been erased over time. Take Pompe and Candace Spring, she said, a family whose historic Portsmouth home was torn down in 1948. As reported by Seacoast Online, “the freed couple owned a comfortable home and operated their once-famous bakery” in the heart of the city. The Black Heritage Trail added a new marker on the site of their home last year.
“So it just goes to show that there's history all over the place. We just have to find it and do our own research.”Sonya Martino, Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire
Pompe and Candace Spring weren’t the only ones whose stories have been overlooked. Martino said the history of New Hampshire’s Black population dates back centuries, but hardly gets any recognition — those communities, she said, were often the victims of redlining, gentrification and other displacement. She said that stands in contrast with Strawbery Banke, the site of an early European settlement neighborhood, which has been carefully preserved.
“There're so many powerful stories of Black history in this state alone that people are completely unaware of,” Martino said. “And it angers me.”
By sharing and recognizing these stories, she hopes more people will engage in conversations about why Black communities were pushed away and denied recognition. Her goal is to encourage people to discuss the local history that they typically don’t learn about in school.
“I believe that the erasure of all of this history is really important and people need to learn about it. “And I hope that once that happens, we’ll be a much kinder, open community — and inclusive.”