By Archivist Susan Kindstedt
No collection at the Athenaeum provides the names of more individuals of African descent living in Portsmouth than the MS036 North Church Papers, 1640-1970 collection. Although the papers include the names of individuals, the collection fails to tell stories from their own perspective, as we have for many of Portsmouth’s early white residents in the form of letters and diaries. As Valerie Cunningham and Mark Sammons so wisely stated in Black Portsmouth:
Modern knowledge of colonial Africans is found almost solely in records written by non-Black people. Culling meaning from archival snippets is difficult. White record keepers, with no interest in the Black experience, mention non whites only in terse terms. The references are found mostly in legal, business, and church records and occasionally in newspaper articles, diaries, or reminiscences. In the later sources the actions of appearances of Black people are often misunderstood or described in barbed, critical, fearful, or ridiculing language.
Although we may never know how these individuals thought and felt about their position in the community, we are fortunate to find record of their lives. In the collection of the North Church, there is a small notebook containing the names of individuals receiving charitable aid from the church, including the following individuals identified as being of African descent:
“Cuff Whipple” was noted on May 4, 1803. His widow, Rebecca, received aid in 1818 and 1819 following Cuff’s death in 1816.
Cuff, who also went by Cuffee, was a talented musician who started his life in Portsmouth as a slave in the household of Joseph Whipple. Whipple freed Cuff in 1784. Black Portsmouth tells of his violin playing, often at the Assembly House ballroom. (Cunningham and Sammons, Black Portsmouth, page 88).
The family of Prince Whipple is also listed in the record as receiving aid. Prince Whipple was enslaved by William Whipple of Portsmouth, one of New Hampshire’s delegates to the Continental Congress. According to Valerie Cunningham and Mark Sammons in Black Portsmouth, Prince was regarded as a leader in Portsmouth’s Black community. Prince married Dinah Chase who was freed on the day of their marriage, February 22, 1781, having been enslaved in the household of Rev. Chase of New Castle. Dinah received aid in 1805, 1806, 1811, 1818 and 1819. One receipt, ca. 1820-21 was signed by Dinah Whipple herself.
For more information on the MS036 North Church manuscript collection, click the button below to see the finding aid.