Shadows Fall North
Shadows Fall North
Pallbearers make their way to the Portsmouth, N.H., African Burial Ground, part of the reburial ceremony of African skeletal remains, which took place on May 23, 2015. Photo by Atlantic Media Productions.
JerriAnne Boggis (left) and Valerie Cunningham (right), are featured in "Shadows Fall North." Photo by Burt Feintuch.
"Black people have been in New Hampshire for over 300 years," says Boggis. "The stories in 'Shadows Fall North' are not isolated to one place in the State, just as Black history is not isolated to one place in the United States, just as slavery was not isolated to one place — Black history is American history."
The year was 1835. The place: Canaan, N.H. Hundreds of men with teams of oxen and chains descended on Noyes Academy, a newly-established interracial school. They pulled the building off its foundation, dragging it a mile to the town hall where they left it in a heap. Not stopping there, the men trained cannons on the houses of known abolitionists. Briefly, gunshots were exchanged. Fearing for their safety, several black Academy students fled Canaan in the night.
The story of Noyes Academy, which never reopened as an integrated school, is a piece of New Hampshire history that may not be known widely. It's one of the stories highlighted in "Shadows Fall North," a new documentary film produced by the UNH Center for the Humanities in collaboration with Atlantic Media Productions in Portsmouth, N.H., premiering on Thursday, May 26, 2016 at 7 p.m. at The Music Hall in Portsmouth.
"Shadows Fall North" explores the Black experience in New Hampshire, historically and today, focusing on the work of two historians and activists, Valerie Cunningham of Portsmouth and JerriAnne Boggis of Milford. The film features several momentous events, including the discovery and reinterment of skeletal remains at the African Burying Ground in Portsmouth; the efforts to memorialize America's first African American novelist, Harriet Wilson of Milford; and the petition for freedom submitted to the New Hampshire General Assembly by twenty Portsmouth slaves in 1779, a request signed into law by Governor Maggie Hassan only 3 years ago. The film also takes a personal look at what it's like for Cunningham and Boggis, both women of color, to live and raise families in a state with a relatively small African-American population — only 1.5% according to 2014 census data.
The idea for the film was hatched in 2011, shortly after the Center's first documentary was released, "Uprooted: Heartache and Hope in New Hampshire," which tells the stories of recent refugees who settled in New Hampshire.
"I've always understood the Center's mission to extend to the State and beyond, using the perspectives of the humanities to help citizens think about the world we share…," says Burt Feintuch, the Center's director. "Pleased by the success of 'Uprooted,' I suggested that we follow that film with another set of stories, this time on the recovery — and forgetting — of the State's African American history."
While some of the stories covered in the film have received wide press coverage locally, such as the creation of the African Burying Ground, "Shadows Fall North" brings the stories together in a format that can be shared easily, statewide and regionally. Plans are in process for screenings at museums and historical societies throughout New Hampshire, and the production team has connected with New Hampshire social studies teachers to explore how the film might be used in primary and secondary schools. Katie Umans, the Center's assistant director, hopes the documentary will find a national audience, as well.
"The film models how citizens can shape their communities and that is very transportable," says Umans. "When the burying ground in Portsmouth was dedicated, there was an article in a Richmond, Va. paper that basically said 'Look what they did in New Hampshire. Why can’t we do that here?' So, already, one of these stories is having an impact well beyond the State. There’s a lot of potential for more of that."
For Umans, the "Shadows Fall North" project has illuminated the way that New Hampshire history — as it is celebrated at historical sites and in re-enactments, for example — has often erased the stories of Black people. With the film's focus on the experiences of Cunningham and Boggis, that erasure becomes personal, an invisibility felt by each person in an individual way.
"It saddens me to reflect how long it has taken to write some of that history back into the public record," says Feintuch. "…At a time when #BlackLivesMatter and issues of race, ethnicity and religion are so prominent, we want to bring these matters home to New Hampshire, using this film to stimulate thought and discussion."
"Shadows Fall North" will premiere on Thursday, May 26, 2016 at 7 p.m. at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, N.H. A panel discussion will follow with Valerie Cunningham and JerriAnne Boggis; filmmakers Nancy and Brian Vawter; and film consultant David Watters, UNH professor of English. The panel will be moderated by Jason Sokol, UNH associate professor of history. Visit The Music Hall website to purchase tickets.
"Shadows Fall North" Trailer