With statues coming down around the country in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, NHPR’s Sean Hurley recently heard about one town in New Hampshire that is considering putting one up.
Health care reporter Brian Ward is Black and 28 and lives in Newmarket. He says he’s never seen a statue honoring a person of color his entire life – but then takes it back.
“I do remember one Black statue,” he says, “it was Louis Armstrong at the Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans. I think it was the first and only Black statue I've ever seen.”
Ward knows there are others: Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington D.C., Jackie Robinson at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. But are there any statues featuring Black Americans that aren’t tied to race, music, or sports, he asks?
“It can't just be ‘Oh, we have a great Black American.’”, Ward says. “Can we just treat anyone who did something good for America in the same light? And if we just look at the straight numbers it's all white statues right now. And you know, we could add a few more.”
If Newmarket councilor and restaurant owner Jon Kyper, who is white, has his way, a statue honoring a great Black American and former town resident, Wentworth Cheswill, will soon be commissioned.
“The first battle of The Revolution was not in Concord,” Kyper tells me, “it was actually technically in Portsmouth. The first sort of like engagement with the British troops at New Castle. And Wentworth Cheswill was the first person to round up people, and in some ways instigated this first battle of The Revolution.”
Jon Kyper first learned of Cheswill from a friend, local English teacher John Herman.
“His race is definitely part of the story,” Herman says. “He had the same racial background as Sally Hemings, who was the slave of Thomas Jefferson but he was free. His father was free. His grandfather was a slave who was freed in 1716.”
Herman first read about Cheswill on the historical marker at the Cheswill Cemetery a decade ago and has been pursuing him, with difficulty, ever since.
There are no books about Cheswill, no authentic paintings or renderings – but Cheswill created the first library in town, wrote Newmarket’s history, and is known as New Hampshire's first archaeologist.
“He was the moderator, the assessor. He was a town councilman. He was a school board member. He was the school teacher. He was the coroner. He was the constable. He served almost every single year of his life right up into his death. He was a judge. He was justice of the peace.”
When he was voted in as town constable, in 1768, at the age of 22, Cheswill became the first African-American to hold elected office in the United States.
Like Paul Revere, Cheswill was an elected member of the Committee of Safety and rode from secret meetings delivering messages through the woods on horseback - earning him the dubious nickname the ‘Black Paul Revere.'
“People forget that what we know of Paul Revere comes from a poem that was written to get people involved in the Civil War. Years years years later, a fictionalized thing,” Herman says. “Paul Revere was court martialed and he was accused of being a coward. He had a horrible end to the American Revolution! But Wentworth Cheswill? I would put him on the horse, put him warning people that the British are coming.”
JerriAnne Boggis would, too.
“That should be the American story that we honor,” she says, “you know, that we look and say, ‘Wow, that's the hero story.’”
Boggis is Executive Director of the Black Heritage Trail in Portsmouth, where she focuses on bringing forgotten Black history in New Hampshire to light. She helped get a statue of Harriet Wilson, the first Black woman to publish a novel in North America, put up in Milford in 2006.
And that was just a start. “There're so many rich stories of African and African-American life here that we
just don't know about,” Boggis says. “So many people in our state that we could honor and their names, like Cheswill's, should be much more known for what they accomplished. His name should be everywhere, right? How then do we forget those names?”
The Harriet Wilson statue in Milford, Boggis says, is one way to make sure we remember.
“So you know, having these monuments not only creates that visible memory of that person,” she says, “but it also creates that story of a more welcoming community.”
Councilor Jon Kyper says it was shortly after the recent Black Lives Matter Movement began and statues started coming down that he had a thought.
“I think it's one of those things you don't think that much about, you know,” he says, “until people start tearing them down and lighting them on fire and then you think, you know, what statues shouldn't we have, but what statues should we have?”
Kyper contacted a monument company and was told that for around $35,000 he could have a full-sized bronze statue of Cheswill made and delivered anywhere he liked in town. Raising that money won’t be an issue, he says.
“I feel like the biggest debate is going to be over where and there's a number of good spots around the library in particular that would be cool,” Kyper says. “The idea of building a monument to him is just, you know, there's never been a better time than now, I guess, to do it.”
If all goes to plan, the Cheswill monument would become the second statue honoring a black American that Newmarket resident Brian Ward lays his eyes on.
“You know, it kind of makes me feel better when I have an idea of having a statue of someone,” Ward says. “Being able to point and say, ‘Yeah, my people have been here, we've contributed here. We're not the outsider. We're not the interloper. We're also part of America. We're part of New Hampshire.’”
It’s Brian Ward’s hope and Jon Kyper’s plan - that on the anniversary of Wentworth Cheswill’s 275th birthday in April of 2021 – a new statue will be unveiled in Newmarket honoring a man who helped shape his town, his state and country. A man we should not only have never forgotten, but one we should have especially remembered,