Citizen research sheds light on Black history in the Monadnock Region
Pompey Woodard, a Revolutionary War veteran, lived out his days in Sullivan. George Miller managed the Latchis Theater in Keene in the early 20th century.
Ferry Freeman, a painter who resided in Marlborough in the 1830s, left behind writing materials, various books and a flute and a fiddle when he died. Phoebe Simmons, identified in census records as a “domestic servant” in Keene in the late 19th century, had been enslaved for part of her life.
Those are just some of the names uncovered by a team of citizen archivists who are working to piece together a more complete history of Black Americans who lived in the Monadnock Region going back to the 1700s.
The project — led by the Historical Society of Cheshire County in Keene and the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in Peterborough — aims to better understand the region’s past and the role people of color played in it, said Jenna Carroll, the historical society’s director of education.
“We hear quite often that, you know, ‘We're a lily-white community and we always have been,’” she said. “That doesn't mean that there isn't a story or history that is important for us to understand.”
In fact, the group’s findings undermine the idea of a “lily-white” New Hampshire. Poring over census records, town histories and other reports, the researchers have identified more than 450 people of color who lived in the Monadnock Region between 1730 and 1930.
“We see the story of enslavement, but we are also seeing the story of individuals of color who are coming here and working in the tourism industry,” Carroll said.
The research has also illuminated darker chapters of local history. Researchers have found evidence that enslaved people lived in at least 13 of Cheshire County’s 23 towns, Carroll said. Local select boards also “warned out” some families — voting to expel them from town by alleging they could become too dependent on the government.
Carroll gave a presentation about the research Monday at the historical society in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She said groups like the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire and the Warner Historical Society, which have been working to document African American history in New Hampshire, have served as models.
While the research remains ongoing, it has already revealed some sub-communities and patterns of settlement that the group hopes to investigate further. That includes Black veterans of the Revolutionary War who settled in the region, a cluster of families in Sullivan and the three couples of color who married in the small town of Fitzwilliam in 1819.
Carroll said archivists will be thinking about various questions as they continue their work: how people of color in the region connected with one another; how it felt to be one of a few Black people in town at the time; why many of these families didn’t seem to stick around long; and how they were affected by major national events, like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 or the advent of railroads.
“When we call ourselves a welcoming city today. What did that mean over time?” she said in an interview with NHPR after the talk. “And why is it that people didn't stay long once they moved into the region? I think that's sort of a hard truth that we have to come to understand as well.”
Carroll says they plan to make their research available to historians and educators, and ultimately turn it over to the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire.