Deval Patrick’s hope & history tour
Former governor tours NH black history sites
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. —Deval Patrick’s presidential race took a brief detour from the campaign trail this week to walk in the footsteps of black history and draw personal and political hope from the stories of resilience of early African American residents of New Hampshire’s largest seacoast town.
The former Massachusetts governor began the first Sunday of Black History Month, just nine days before the New Hampshire primary, with a 90-minute stroll along the narrow lanes of Portsmouth, where the first record of black settlement dates back to slave transactions in 1645.
Standing in front of bronze cutouts of figures representing survivors of the Middle Passage who helped drive the economy of the 17th-century port town, Patrick read aloud cursive inscriptions across the metal silhouettes in the centuries-old African Burying Ground Memorial.
“‘I stand for the ancestors here and beyond,’” said Patrick in the slanting winter light. “‘I stand for those who find dignity in these bones.’” The crowd of supporters, campaign aides and media paused respectfully as the words rose into the cold morning air.
JerriAnne Boggis, executive director of the Black Heritage Trail, then led Patrick to the burial ground’s sculpture of bronze 19th-century figures of a man and a woman reaching around their respective sides of a granite plinth to almost touch hands, their backs pushed into the stone as if in fear, the movement of their hands secretive.
Across Chestnut Street, Boggis pointed to a plaque on the old Rockingham Hotel telling the story of how a film crew with many local African Americans among its members forced the integration of the hostelry during the 1949 production of “Lost Boundaries,” a biographical story of passing during an era when racial issues rarely received major cinematic treatment.
Patrick shared the story of his grandparents driving from Chicago to Louisville with a copy of the Green Book — the subject of the Oscar-winning 2019 movie — to guide them to inns and restaurants where blacks were welcome. “They had a Green Book because they had to know where it was safe — where people would not just threaten you but humiliate you.”
In one establishment, his grandparents were seated in the main dining room until a nervous waitress approached the table, said Patrick. “’We’d be happy to serve you,’ she said, ‘but we’ll have to serve you in the kitchen,’” recounted Patrick. “And my grandmother got up and said, ‘No thank you. I don’t even eat in the kitchen in my own house.’”
Further stops among the antebellum wood-framed and brick buildings of old Portsmouth included the Temple, now the Portsmouth Music Hall, where Frederick Douglass famously thundered against slavery before audiences of abolitionists, and the former site of an Underground Railroad stop where a local black baker hid runaway slaves and fed them hardtack from his kitchen for the passage north to freedom in Canada.
In front of the sprawling Langdon House, home of a colonial governor, Boggis told the story of Ona Judge, the chief handmaiden to Martha Washington who escaped bondage to find refuge in Portsmouth after she learned of plans by the first First Lady to present her as a wedding gift to her niece. Slavecatchers pursued her to Portsmouth after a social acquaintance of Martha and George Washington recognized her on the street. But she eluded them and remained free.
“Langdon,” Boggis said, pointing to the chipped paint of the home’s weary façade, “benefited from the slave trade. Just like Newport, we were heavily involved in the slave trade. We cut the timber and made the sails and insured the ships.” The Black Heritage Trail, she added, aims at exposing that history while highlighting the vital role both slaves and free blacks played in building the nation’s early economy, fighting its wars of independence and union, and agitating for a more just society.
“So much of our history is unknown or little known,” said a wistful Patrick as the tour concluded. “I don’t think we even know how much we contributed to our history.”
State Sen. David Watters, a Patrick supporter in the upcoming Democratic primary and a Black Heritage Trail board member, added that because white Americans “don’t really know how to talk about race,” they find it difficult to confront that history.
“It’s not just race,” said Patrick. “We don’t even know people from other parts of the country,” he added, turning to his campaign themes of unity and healing racial and social divisions. “If you want to know how really connected we are, run for president.”
The candidate said he had called a voter in Mississippi to ask for his support in the upcoming primary and the man told him, “’I’ve been waiting for this call for 30 years.’” As it happened, he was the plaintiff in a bias case that Patrick, as a young lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, had supported with an amicus curiae brief. “I’m thinking of him today,” said Patrick.
After the tour, looking ahead to the Feb. 11 primary, Patrick called the New Hampshire race critical to his campaign. He said a large plurality of voters are “undecided or unconvinced” and added that despite his late entry into the race — because of his wife’s cancer diagnosis — he was optimistic about his chances.
“I’ve spent more time in New Hampshire than any other candidates, including the ones who have been here for years,” said Patrick, who pushed aside any suggestion that his candidacy was an audition for a slot as vice president or attorney general in a new administration. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “Why would I miss time with my family and my grandson to run as runner-up for something?”
With his poll numbers in single digits, and locked out of the Feb. 7 New Hampshire debate among the seven qualifying candidates, Patrick is hoping that a stronger-than-expected showing in the Granite State will fuel a rise in support and propel his candidacy to primary battles down the road.
Herb Medley, 83, a former mortgage underwriter who retired to Portsmouth after living in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, followed Patrick on the tour, curious to meet the only black candidate left in the race in a state where Medley is among its small 1.1% African American population. Before posing for a photo with the two-term Bay State governor, Medley said that Patrick’s relative youth, record of accomplishment in improving health care access and educational achievement make him a strong candidate.
His son, Galen Medley, visiting from New Jersey, said he would back Patrick in the June 2 Garden State primary — if he makes it that far. “If he’s strong in New Hampshire, he has a chance. Like my father said, he’s qualified and younger,” he said.