The Hippo


Nov 19, 2019








JerriAnne Boggis and Valerie Cunningham, two of the subjects in Shadows Fall North. Burt Feintuch photo.

See Shadows Fall North

Where: Historical Society of Cheshire County, 246 Main St., Keene 
When: Wednesday, June 29, at 7 p.m.

Saving stories
Shadows Fall North tells of NH’s black history

By Kelly Sennott

In 2003, 13 graves were discovered under Chestnut Street in Portsmouth during an infrastructure construction project. Of the remains that were tested for DNA, all had African ancestry.

Local historians had suspected there’d been something there — old city maps marked the site “Negro Burying Ground” — but nobody knew for sure, and once the area was developed, most people forgot about it. 
The find prompted effort among preservationists and historians to make some changes so something like this couldn’t happen again — which is how filmmakers Nancy and Brian Vawter came to create Shadows Fall North, a documentary about black history in New Hampshire.
Their work started in 2011, when the University of New Hampshire’s Center for the Humanities came to the Vawters after their film company, Atlantic Media Productions, created Uprooted: Heartache and Hope in New Hampshire about New Hampshire refugees. 
“As human beings, we need monuments. That’s why we created the film. You need something to look at, something to remind you that this happened. There were slaves in New Hampshire. There was segregation in New Hampshire. There was and continues to be racism in New Hampshire,” Nancy Vawter said via phone. “And we thought timing was perfect. Not only for us professionally, but also personally. We were looking at what was happening in the country, with the country’s first African-American president.”
The film centers on the effort to get stories of black history back into New Hampshire history, focusing especially on the work of preservation activists Valerie Cunningham of Portsmouth, who started the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, and JerriAnne Boggis of Milford, who pushed getting America’s first published black author, Harriet Wilson, into the public eye, and who’s now the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail director. During those first interviews, it was startling to the couple how much was there and how much they didn’t know.
They had no idea, for instance, that there had been slaves in Portsmouth, or that there had been an academy of abolitionists in Canaan in the late 1800s called the Noyes Academy — or that several hundred men demolished it, ripping out the foundation with oxen, not long after it was built.
“There was story after story,” Nancy Vawter said. “Just because there were abolitionists in New Hampshire doesn’t mean everybody was an abolitionist. It’s been a very lopsided view of history, really. … We started to ask the question, why? Why don’t we know about this? … I think it’s a theme in our documentary — that black history gets buried and forgotten, and then uncovered and paved over again.”
And that’s not an uncommon reaction.
“Often our state is called one of the whitest in the union. So that narrative creates a shield of invisibility around black folk … and that’s a narrative that’s carried through today. Once you lift that veil and recognize blacks have always been here, I think people’s eyes become open,” Boggis said.
Initially the couple thought they’d finish in 18 months, but they kept pushing their deadline to include more people and more narratives. It wasn’t until after the dedication of the African Burying Ground last spring they decided it was time to edit the more than 60 hours of footage they accumulated. The first screening at The Music Hall this May saw a packed house.
“The response was amazing,” Boggis said via phone. “The turnout at The Music Hall was exceptional, with 689 people who showed up and stayed through the end of the film. There was an extended standing ovation at the conclusion of the film, and they even stuck around for the Q&A afterward. … [The film] is an amazing tool to make that history more visible.”
Nancy Vawter said they plan to enter the flick in film festivals and cut it down into small vignettes accessible for classroom use. They still need to raise more funds to purchase the rights of a small film segment that was borrowed from Warner Brothers’ Lost Boundaries. The hope is that something like a film will make it harder for these tales to disappear again.
“I’m passionate about this topic, and I don’t want to see the discussion begin and end; I want it to continue,” Vawter said. “It’s a path we need to acknowledge and embrace and continue to teach to our children, and only then as a nation, really, [do] I think we can move forward.” 

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