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How a family discovery connected two strangers — and opened their eyes to NH's history of slavery

Two women stand in front of a white fence that looks over a river.
Courtesy
/
Tonya Ward Singer
Laurel Guild Yancey and Tonya Ward Singer met in person on Juneteenth weekend in 2022. Here they stand on the rooftop of the Moffatt-Ladd house where Guild Yancey's ancestory, Prince Whipple, lived while enslaved by Ward Singer's ancestors, William and Catherine Moffatt Whipple.

Genealogy can reveal surprises in our family tree. A few years ago, a collection of old family letters led to a discovery that connected two strangers across the country who learned their family histories were connected by slavery in New Hampshire: one, the descendant of a man who was enslaved in Portsmouth; the other, a descendant from the family that enslaved him.

Tonya Ward Singer, who lives in California, traced her history back to the Moffatt and Whipple families, who were prominent New Hampshire business people in the 1700s. Through old letters, she learned that her ancestors enslaved people, including a man named Prince Whipple. She traced down one of his descendants, Laurel Guild Yancey, in Georgia, to offer her genealogy research. Guild Yancey said she had no idea of her ancestry until Ward Singer contacted her, but she is proud of her family tree.

“They were pioneering people,” Guild Yancey said.

Prince Whipple fought in the Revolutionary War. In 1779 he and 19 other men who were from Africa and enslaved in New Hampshire petitioned the Legislature for their freedom and an end to slavery in the state. His wife, Dinah Chase Whipple, started the state’s first school for Black children in the Black Whipple home, and a University of New Hampshire program is named in her honor.

“So her legacy of being a pioneering woman and also a leader in the community goes forth into the 21st century,” Guild Yancey said.

Ward Singer says her work with national organizations Coming to the Table andOur Black Ancestry taught her not only how to do genealogical research on her ancestors, but how to reckon with her family’s history. She hopes that other white families like hers will also preserve, and make public, documents about their ancestors who enslaved people.

“In a lot of families, the Black history, the African American ancestors of people in our nation – it's hidden in a family box. And sometimes the white family will burn it or hide it or give it away out of shame. Don’t do that,” Ward Singer says. “In the same way that it's meaningful for any of us to connect to ancestors, you have precious information about somebody's ancestors. And making that public is really, really important.”

NHPR’s Morning Edition producer Jackie Harris spoke with Guild Yancey and Ward Singer to learn more about their experiences and what lessons they’ve taken away from this journey into their family history.


Transcript

Tonya, let's start with you. You are the descendant of the Moffatt and Whipple families of Portsmouth. William Whipple signed the Declaration of Independence and was an enslaver. How did you learn you were related to him?

Tonya Ward Singer: In 2016, I came across letters on my father's shelf that had been passed grandparent to grandchild four times to find me – it was a love letter between husband and wife. And I got hooked on my ancestors. And about 100 pages into reading and trying to learn about these ancestors, I learned that my ancestors enslaved people.

To me, this was a shock because my ancestors are all from New England, and up until that moment, I didn't know anything about slavery in New England, which I'm willing to say because I know this is representative of a lot of people.

So I'm looking at that historical ignorance from the inside out going, "Wait, how can I be highly educated and not know this fundamental truth about the founding of our nation?" That's history we should all know.

Laurel, you are a descendant of Prince Whipple, a person enslaved in New Hampshire by William Whipple. He served in the American Revolution and later petitioned for his freedom from slavery. How did you learn he was your ancestor?

A plaque from the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail tells the history of Prince Whipple and Windsor Moffatt, two enslaved men who petitioned for their freedom.
Courtesy
/
Laurel Guild Yancey.
A plaque from the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail tells the history of Prince Whipple and Windsor Moffatt, two enslaved men who petitioned for their freedom. Laurel Guild Yancey took a picture of this marker when she visited Portsmouth before she even knew she was related to Prince Whipple.

Laurel Guild Yancey: The background to it is this – on June 19th, 2019, Juneteenth, I was visiting Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was my first time, I'd been invited to attend a leadership dinner. And while I was walking, I glanced at a bronze historical marker entitled Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. I took a photo of the marker that pays tribute to Prince Whipple and Windsor Moffatt as revolutionary petitioners.

About three years later, I unexpectedly received a LinkedIn email titled, "Reaching out from Santa Rosa, California" from Tonya Ward Singer. She wrote that she had "some information about ancestors I'd like to share with you from my research back to New Hampshire's 1700s." So that's how we connected, and that's how I found out about my connection to Prince Whipple and Dinah Chase Whipple.

So you found out about your ancestry from Tonya. What was that first conversation together like?

Tonya Ward Singer: First of all, by the time I sent messages to Laurel, I was ready to just hand over a link to a Google folder with everything that she would need to look at her ancestors, whether or not she wanted to talk to me.

The first conversation, you're just getting to know one another. And several Zooms in, I was thinking about going to Portsmouth for Juneteenth weekend and bringing one of my teenagers with me and was like, "I'd like to go, would you be interested in going?" And Laurel [said] "Absolutely."

I was delighted and surprised, but we went to Portsmouth Juneteenth weekend 2022 and walked where our ancestors walked, went on the tour with the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. [We] went into the Moffatt-Ladd House together, where our ancestors had lived, where my ancestors had enslaved Laurel's ancestors. And that was profound.

You give talks together about your family's connection through slavery. What do you hope to communicate to people about your experience?

Laurel Guild Yancey: Tonya and I connected in 2022. I had no idea about slavery in the North. I grew up in Boston. In Massachusetts, we weren't really thinking about slavery, so it really caught my curiosity that this was a historical fact about Prince Whipple being an African who was enslaved in the Moffatt-Ladd House and Garden Museum. So what I'm proud of most with Prince Whipple and Dinah Chase Whipple –

Dinah Chase Whipple was the wife of Prince Whipple, and they were both later freed, although they were enslaved earlier in their life. Right?

Laurel Guild Yancey: Yes, they were enslaved, but they are free. And they are pioneering people in terms of Prince Whipple petitioning for freedom. And he was a very well respected African in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire community and a historical figure during the American Revolutionary War. So that is something to be proud of in terms of his fight for freedom and social justice.

And Dinah Chase Whipple, I'm proud of her. She was also pioneering as a free woman who started a school for African children in the Black Whipple home. So these are just some of the factors that need to be known about Prince Whipple and Dinah Chase Whipple. And I want to honor them as we go forward in whatever presentations that Tonya and I do together.

And, Tonya, what about you?

Tonya Ward Singer: It's beautiful listening to Laurel, every time I listen to Laurel talk about her ancestors and hear her pride and talking about Dinah Chase Whipple and Prince Whipple. When we talk together about this history, there's something we can communicate that is really hard to communicate alone.

I think about all the years that I was trying to reckon with slavery, reading these very dehumanizing records, and with the help of the Black Heritage Trail and Valerie Cunningham and Mark Salmon's book, "Black Portsmouth," learning to humanize the history. When you hear Laurel speaking about Prince Whipple and Dinah Chase Whipple, we're talking about humans and humans with agency, with leadership contributing to our nation.

All too often, the conversation about slavery, especially coming from the descendant of the enslaver lens, is, "I don't want to talk about this," and it's about white feelings. "Am I ashamed? Am I responsible?" All those kinds of things. And the white people get stuck there and shut the conversation down.

I believe that when we tell our story, we show another narrative, which is that actually when you face this history, you will find connection. You have to face the hard truths. You have to be willing to process and reckon with what is a dehumanizing history. But on the other side, you get to meet people doing incredible work in multiple organizations. The Black Heritage Trail, the Moffatt-Ladd House is working on a reinterpretation, and our families, we're having deeper dialogues and connections. And it feels like a way to move forward.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to add additional context on the 1779 petition to the New Hampshire legislature that Prince Whipple signed.

Jackie Harris is the Morning Edition Producer at NHPR. She first joined NHPR in 2021 as the Morning Edition Fellow.

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