UNH kicked off its 2017 tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on Wednesday, Feb. 1 with a screening and discussion of “Shadows Fall North” — a documentary that explores New Hampshire’s hidden black history. Produced by the UNH Humanities program in collaboration with Atlantic Media, the film brought in a vast crowd, as the theater was packed nearly to capacity with interested students, faculty and members of the Durham community.
UNH Center of Humanities Director Burt Feintuch said that the film had two goals: to write black people back into the history of New Hampshire and to pay tribute to JerriAnne Boggis and Valerie Cunningham, two residents who have done significant work toward accomplishing this goal.
In 2003, bodies were discovered under the paved road of Chestnut Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the exact location Cunningham had discovered was a colonial-era African burial ground. This is the main story which the documentary follows and continues to return to, as well as the process of discovering the lost history, conducting a proper burial, building monuments and honoring the sacred ground in the most respectful and complete way possible.
“With a monument like this, you can’t hide from the story anymore,” Boggis said after the screening of the film. “It forces us to start the dialogue.”
“Shadows Fall North” also chronicles important and forgotten pieces of black history in New Hampshire, such as the story of “Our Nig,” the first novel written by an African-American woman to be published in the United States and one of the only novels about slavery in the north. The film also dwells on the subject of Noyes Academy, a school in Canaan, which welcomed men, women and people of color to learn together and whose students were quickly driven out of the town. A portion of the film also examined Elizabeth Ann Virgil, the first African-American to graduate from UNH.
The documentary also covered the difficult acceptance of history in a state that prides itself on its freedom and abolitionist activity. Even its title, “Shadows Fall North,” was drawn from the title page of Milford author Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig,” which was a central part of the film.
“In a two-story house, north. Showing that slavery’s shadows fall even there,” it reads.
This history is forgotten, Boggis explains in the film, because “if the history is not visible and not talked about, it doesn’t exist.”
“One of the most striking things was realizing how close to home all of these things happened, and now knowing a single lick of this information going through a public education system in New Hampshire,” junior philosophy and mathematics major Eden Suoth said of the film. “The most surprising thing was that I didn’t know about it after living in New Hampshire for 15 years.”
Following the film was an open discussion with Boggis where audience members could ask questions or share thoughts about the film, as well as what the film means to them personally regarding black history in New Hampshire today.
She discussed the struggle to get “Our Nig” into New Hampshire’s high school curriculum, creating more black history monuments and trails throughout the state of New Hampshire, and the state’s overall progress regarding social justice issues.
“If we are interested in fulfilling this vision of America that we have, we have to look to ourselves,” she said.
The African burial ground and monument can be seen on Chestnut Street in Portsmouth, and events commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. will continue at UNH throughout the month of February.