May 14, 2022
Thank you for all coming here today as we take time to remember a part of Windham’s history that was largely forgotten.
At least four African Americans are buried in Windham. There may very well be more, because there were over a dozen slaves and free-blacks in town during the late 18th and early 19th century. Their burial in the Southeastern corner of the Cemetery on the Hill, was confirmed by Bob Perry using ground penetrating radar. They are in the exact location as described by Leonard Morrison in his History of Windham. Every time we enter into that cemetery, we are treading on their graves. And now we know, and the Windham residents that follow us will know, that they are there. I am so grateful to the Cemetery Trustees for the support of this project and the costs associated with verifying the grave sites and preparing the location for the installation of the memorial tablet.
The impetus of this ongoing effort was simple; it was based in common decency. The Dinsmore family has rows of memorials to remember the lives of those who were members of this community along with all the other old families like the Morrisons, Cochrans, Nesmiths, Simpsons and Armstrongs. I have come to feel strongly that the contribution and the names of the African Americans who were part of our history and who are buried alongside my ancestors, should also be remembered. By so doing so, we will preserve their history as part of the town of Windham and the wider Black community of early New England.
I first learned about Black history and slavery in Windham, over twenty-five years ago, from Leonard Morrison, and I wrote a series of articles about it at the time. During the last few years, with all the racial strife dividing our nation, I went back and dug deeper into Black history in both Windham and New England, and I came to see how the story was far richer and deeper than just a story of slavery.
The fact that there was a large, vibrant African American community in New England at the time of the Revolutionary war has vanished from our collective memory. William Piersen in “Black Yankees” says that in 1770 there were over 15,000 free-Blacks and slaves in New England, with New Hampshire having 654.
Until just recently, it was also forgotten by most, that there were large numbers of Blacks soldiers in the continental army. “Historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 African descended people participated in the Revolution on the patriot side…” Just think about that for a moment, blacks were fully armed and fighting side by side with whites. This must have been an eye-opening event for all of them as they both fought bravely for a common cause. And for Blacks it was an ennobling event of self-empowerment and honor. Many African Americans used what they earned from fighting in the war to buy their own freedom, or as in the case of Barzillai Lew, who was a free black, it allowed him to use his earnings to buy the freedom of his wife in Andover MA.
I have to tell you my favorite story of a Black man’s bravery in the Revolutionary War. It is the story of the African American Cuff Whittemore, who faced General Burgoyne twice, both at Saratoga and Bunker Hill. British forces captured him in Saratoga and he was escorted to Burgoyne’s tent, where he was ordered to take the reins of the general’s horse, “like a groom or some such thing.” “Wittemore did take Burgoyne’s horse, but not as ordered. Instead, he mounted it and amidst whizzing musket balls, sped off to freedom on Burgoyne’s own steed!”
In the old Nesmith Library gleaming white marble plaques are engraved with the names of the people in Windham who fought in the various wars. I would always marvel at the names and look for my ancestor, Robert Dinsmoor, a 17-year-old fifer who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. But little did I know, until last year, that one of the names engraved in marble was an African American by the name of Nicholas Vicksham, who was a free-black that lived in South Windham, and who fought with his friends and neighbors, in Vermont, at the Battle of Hubbardston. He was either captured or killed there by the British.
After the Revolutionary War, slavery in New England slowly faded away, and the strong abolitionist movement of the 19th century was the impetus for the disappearance of both the history of blacks and slavery in New England. When I grew up in New Hampshire in the 1960’s and when I studied history in college, I had no idea that blacks had even existed in New England before the Northern migration of the twentieth century.
I’ve read that African Americans by enlarge did not patriciate in local religious institutions in the 18th century, but this is not what my research has uncovered. For example, Nancy Gardner Prince, one of the first black published authors, attended the church in Gloucester with her grandfather. She was a devout Christian, who overcame incredible challenges and accomplished great things as an African American woman. Barzillia Lew, attended the church just south of here in Dracut, which was known as “Black North” on the underground railroad maps, where his children sang in the choir of this integrated congregation. And here in Windham, Jeffry was said to have listened to the gospel message on the porch and did not go inside, but a change came, and beginning in 1785, “Pew 36” was being used by the African Americans in town during worship.“
Another story from Windham tells an incredible story of the resilience of two women. Agnes Hemphill and her slave Dinah. Agnes’s husband Captain Nathaniel Hemphill died young, leaving 18 children to be raised by this pair of women. Agnes spent long hours with her daughters laboring at their looms, making linen cloth, to sell in Salem, Massachusetts. Dinah took care of the younger children and household tasks. These two women, working together clothed, fed and kept a roof over these 18 children. Dinah was later freed and continued to work in the Hemphill household until she left to marry.
We know only a little about Peter Thom, Jeffry, Pompey and Rose. Jeffry was first enslaved by John Dinsmoor who ran a store, was a justice of the peace and a delegate to the Provincial Congress in Exeter. By 1790, we know that Jeffry could write his own name, leading to the tantalizing possibility that he might have been literate. We also know that by 1790 he was earning wages for his work. Jeffry later went on to work for the Nesmith’s who also had a store in Windham and whose family was among the founders of Lowell Massachusetts. Dinsmoor’s account books show that Pompey worked on the old Meeting-house that was once located in the Cemetery on the Hill. Both helped many of the farmers in Windham to establish their farms using oxen to help clear their land.
I would again like to thank all of the people who worked so hard to make this event happen: I am so grateful for the members of the African American Committee in town who have led this effort. The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. The Windham Presbyterian Church and pastor John Seiders; The Cemetery Trustees; The Windham Endowment; and the Windham Citizens for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
I hope that as more of the lost history of the African American community in New England is rediscovered, that both blacks and whites will understand the importance of our common history and culture. We as a nation are passing through perilous times, and the only way we are going to preserve this Republic for our children, is by ending the purposeful division and by uniting as one people.
And now I would like to say out loud, the names of the African Americans who lived in Windham in the 18th and 19th century beginning with those we know are buried in the Cemetery on the Hill. Their names will no longer be forgotten. To tell you the truth, they have all become like old friends to me:
Old Rif: A slave of Robert Smiths. Who was said by Morrison to be the last slave in New Hampshire and died near 1842. He liked to hunt rabbits with his white friend and neighbor George Simpson.
Raphael Smith Who lived with Lieutenant Robert Smith, died while sitting on a wheel-barrow.
Harry and Venus Chew and their family
Nicholas Vicksham the Revolutionary war solider.
And James Jones who fought in the Civil War with the First Regiment of Heavy artillery.