History is just that, a story. And before any story gets published, it is edited. Sentences are refined, and sometimes whole chunks of the story may be cropped from the narrative because it does not gel with the overall message the author is trying get across to the readers.
That is the case with American slavery in the North. Many northerners wish to think that slavery is just an institution of the South, that they had nothing to do with such a horrible thing. So, they leave it out of the story when they teach history classes to their children, and the children, not knowing better, don’t question whether or not it is true.
Even JerriAnne Boggis and Dean Gretchen Gerzina were unaware of this piece of forgotten history. Both women of color believed in the myth that no people of color, slaves included, lived above the Mason-Dixon Line. There was nothing to say otherwise – until Boggis came across a newspaper article about this different history, and Gerzina’s mother, a genealogist, told her about the black families that used to live in her hometown.
Thus, the point of this lecture, which is one part within a series related to artist Kara Walker, was to make sure that members of the Amherst community were made aware of this forgotten piece of history.
JerriAnne Boggis was born and raised in Jamaica, later as an adult moving to New Hampshire. Therefore, she began the lecture by not only talking about her background, but by introducing how essential a role New Hampshire played in slavery. In particular, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which was by the ocean and therefore imported a lot of slaves to be dispersed across the country. She went on to talk about how Portsmouth refused to acknowledge this part of its past until 2003, when the city was conducting downtown sewer repairs and found remains of an African American burial ground for slaves.
This unearthing led to the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, which you can read more about here.
Boggis also talked about Ona Marie Judge, George Washington’s very own runaway slave, and Noyes Academy, the interracial college that only lasted for eight months before the surrounding white population destroyed the facility foundations and burned the remains.
Dean Gerzina talked about her own personal experiences with discovering the truth about New England’s entanglement with slavery. Moreover, she discussed how hard it was to piece together that history when faced with what JerriAnne Boggis coined as the “willful forgetting” on the part of the North. In particular, Dean Gerzina talked about how “people say, ‘well, it wasn’t as bad as slavery elsewhere,” and the anecdotes she used to counter this argument.
The event ended with questions from the audience for both women. Questions varied on everything from communication between Northern and Southern slaves, to whether or not there were slaves in Boston. (The answer is yes, there were.)
Dean Gerzina concluded the event with an important point. “It’s not up to [just] black people to find the history,” she says, “but that everyone has to own it and understand it.” Even if, like the history of slavery in the North, that history is painful and hard.
Photography by Anna Handte-Reinecker and Kimberly Mazejka.