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Bill May Posthumously Free N.H. Slaves

  • A section of a petition filled by 20 African slaves asking for their freedom more than 200 years ago is seen at the New Hampshire state Archives Wednesday March 7, 2013 in Concord, N.H. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would posthumously grant the request of African slaves who petitioned for their freedom during the Revolutionary War. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

    A section of a petition filled by 20 African slaves asking for their freedom more than 200 years ago is seen at the New Hampshire state Archives Wednesday March 7, 2013 in Concord, N.H. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would posthumously grant the request of African slaves who petitioned for their freedom during the Revolutionary War. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

  • A section of a petition filled by 20 African slaves asking for their freedom more than 200 years ago is seen at the New Hampshire state Archives Wednesday March 7, 2013 in Concord, N.H. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would posthumously grant the request of African slaves who petitioned for their freedom during the Revolutionary War. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

    A section of a petition filled by 20 African slaves asking for their freedom more than 200 years ago is seen at the New Hampshire state Archives Wednesday March 7, 2013 in Concord, N.H. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would posthumously grant the request of African slaves who petitioned for their freedom during the Revolutionary War. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

  • A section of a petition filled by 20 African slaves asking for their freedom more than 200 years ago is seen at the New Hampshire state Archives Wednesday March 7, 2013 in Concord, N.H. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would posthumously grant the request of African slaves who petitioned for their freedom during the Revolutionary War. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

    A section of a petition filled by 20 African slaves asking for their freedom more than 200 years ago is seen at the New Hampshire state Archives Wednesday March 7, 2013 in Concord, N.H. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would posthumously grant the request of African slaves who petitioned for their freedom during the Revolutionary War. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

  • A section of a petition filled by 20 African slaves asking for their freedom more than 200 years ago is seen at the New Hampshire state Archives Wednesday March 7, 2013 in Concord, N.H. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would posthumously grant the request of African slaves who petitioned for their freedom during the Revolutionary War. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
  • A section of a petition filled by 20 African slaves asking for their freedom more than 200 years ago is seen at the New Hampshire state Archives Wednesday March 7, 2013 in Concord, N.H. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would posthumously grant the request of African slaves who petitioned for their freedom during the Revolutionary War. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
  • A section of a petition filled by 20 African slaves asking for their freedom more than 200 years ago is seen at the New Hampshire state Archives Wednesday March 7, 2013 in Concord, N.H. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would posthumously grant the request of African slaves who petitioned for their freedom during the Revolutionary War. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Concord — An NAACP member testified yesterday in support of a New Hampshire Senate bill that would posthumously grant the request of 20 African slaves who petitioned for their freedom during the Revolutionary War.

Woullard Lett, a member of the Manchester NAACP, told a Senate committee it’s never too late to right a wrong.

State Sen. Martha Fuller Clarke, D-Portsmouth, said during her testimony that constituents brought the petition to her attention, and she hopes the Legislature will act quickly to emancipate the former slaves.

One of those constituents is Valerie Cunningham, a historian and preservationist from Portsmouth. She said she came across the petition in state archives nearly 30 years ago. It’s signed by 20 African slaves from the Seacoast region.

The petition was originally submitted to the New Hampshire General Assembly while the Revolutionary War was still being fought.

“This is part of American history that just has not been recognized, and New Hampshire is not unique in that regard,” said Cunningham, speaking in the hallway outside the hearing room.

The slaves all served in the war effort and believed the freedom being sought by colonists should naturally be extended to them as well. They wrote, “Freedom is an inherent right of the human species” and that “public tyranny and slavery are alike detestable to minds conscious of the equal dignity of human nature.”

The general court never acted upon the petition and, though six of the slaves were later freed, 14 died in bondage, according to a history of the black community in the Seacoast region written by Cunningham. Sen. Fuller Clarke’s bill would emancipate the 14 who were never freed.

Cunningham said now is the time to act on the petition because it will help bring attention to an African-American burial ground in downtown Portsmouth, where a mayoral committee is hoping to build a memorial park.

The African Burying Ground Committee has worked for almost a decade to get the memorial built, and though they need additional money, a spokesman said they may break ground on the project this summer. The design would include granite engravings with passages from the petition.

The goal of the bill and the memorial park is to celebrate the culture and contribution of blacks to New Hampshire and bring that history to the fore, Cunningham said.

“It’s sad that this is not in the schools. We need to make sure that the history we teach is more inclusive,” she added.

Black people account for only 1.1 percent of New Hampshire’s population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Cunningham said that the state is no less welcoming to blacks than the rest of New England, but the tiny population in New Hampshire makes it more difficult for their voices to be heard.

Speaking before the hearing, Lett said he sees the bill as largely symbolic but hopes its passage will mean the Legislature doesn’t plan to wait another 200 years to address the concerns of the black community today.

He said those concerns include persistent wage and health inequalities and a disproportionate number of blacks in the state prison system.