Thursday, September 14, 7 pm
STAR Theater, Kittery Community Center, Kittery, ME (correction)
Reading and Book Signing
Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery and Berwick in the Massachusetts Province of Maine
Meet author Patricia Q . Wall and hear the long-lost history of Blacks in early Maine.
You might say Pat Wall’s groundbreaking new study of lost African American lives was divinely inspired. She was seated in the First Congregational Church at Kittery Point, the oldest continuously used church in Maine. Looking up at the empty white walls she imagined the segregated side galleries, now removed, once filled with faces of enslaved and freed black church members. Were there really “just a few slaves” in Kittery as the town histories claimed?
“I suddenly wanted to know who these people were. What were their lives like?” says author Patricia Q. Wall. “I decided to stop musing and find some answers.”
Five years later, Lives of Consequence, published by the Portsmouth Historical Society’s Portsmouth Marine Society Press, is a shockingly expansive and revealing new book. Wall’s painstaking research has uncovered, not just a few, but hundreds of forgotten African and mixed race residents. Her work focuses on the large colonial parish of “Old Kittery,” just across the New Hampshire border. The 18-mile wide seacoast parish now includes the picturesque towns of Eliot, Berwick, and South Berwick, Maine. Until 1820 this territory was part of Massachusetts.
The truth, Wall quickly learned, has been hiding deep below the surface. While the importation of captured Africans to Massachusetts began as early as 1637 under Puritan Gov. John Winthrop, the practice slowly infected the territory of Maine to the north. The cause, initially, was economic. New England needed workers for farms, fisheries, and sawmills. Indentured European workers could earn back their freedom over a period of years. But 20 permanently enslaved Africans, according to a contemporary report, could be maintained for the price of a single indentured white servant.
Records of Black residents are spotty, when records exist at all. Pat Wall was forced to comb through countess wills, letters, estate inventories, court and church records. She uncovered evidence of as many as 500 forgotten persons living in the Parish of Kittery from its settlement through the American Revolution.
The author names names. Lives of Consequence identifies 186 white slave owners plus another 57 local people possibly involved in the odious trade. Colonial slave owners included prominent families named Pepperrell, Chadbourne, Whipple, Cutts, Gerrish, Frost, and Sparhawk. Stripped of their African identities, the names of Black laborers and servants (often a euphemism for “slaves”) were difficult to trace. Single names like Phyllis, Libby, Cato, Mingo, Caesar, and Pompey flicker through the public record and private correspondence. More often the reference is simply to a “mulatto woman” or a “negro man.” The birth of only one of the enslaved children appeared in Kittery’s official records.
For all its scholarly content, the first half of Lives of Consequence is supremely readable. The author of two African American history novels for children, Pat Wall combines the flowing narrative skills of fiction into a powerful narrative history. The second half is an extraordinary sourcebook listing hundreds of African, mulatto, and Indian lives culled from Wall’s research where most appear only as “one-liners,” mentioned once, only to disappear into the mists of history. More than 40 percent of the “invisible people” were identified by no names at all, having been reduced to an anonymous “runaway” or “negro.”
Two individuals stand out. Mollie Miles, who was enslaved by the Kittery family of Sir William Pepperrell, was interviewed by a reporter in a life that spanned 108 years. William Black, often listed as “Black Will,” managed to obtain his freedom, earn income, buy property, raise a family, and live as a farmer among his predominantly white neighbors.
“Black history,” historian Valerie Cunningham points out in her introduction to Wall’s book, “is American history worth knowing and exploring.”
About the author
For the past 48 years, Patricia Quigley Wall has been involved with New England’s colonial history through professional museum work, research, teaching, and writing. More recently, after meeting Valerie Cunningham and learning of her ground-breaking research on Black history in early Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Mrs. Wall wrote an historical novel, Child Out of Place (Fall Rose Books, 2004, for ages 10 and up), based on a fictional, early 19th-century Black family in that locale. Six years later, its sequel, Beyond Freedom (Fall Rose Books, 2010), followed that family into Boston’s 1812 Black community on Beacon Hill. Both books were based on meticulous research.
For more information on event contact Valerie Cunningham firstname.lastname@example.org 603-380-1231
STAR Theater, Kittery Community Center, 120 Rogers Rd., Kittery, ME