The first novel published by an African-American woman. A burial ground lost for decades beneath a city street. An eloquent petition from a group of enslaved men seeking freedom for all. The state’s first racially integrated, coeducational academy — ripped from its foundation by an angry mob.
These are just a few of the largely untold stories that riveted the audience at The Music Hall for the world premiere of “Shadows Fall North,” a documentary film on the ongoing efforts to recover black history in New Hampshire.
Produced by UNH’s Center for the Humanities in collaboration with Atlantic Media Productions, the film premiered on Thursday, May 26, to a packed house. As the closing credits began rolling, the audience was on its feet in a standing ovation.
“We were thrilled with the audience response — with how many people in the community, and beyond, came to the premiere,” says Burt Feintuch, professor of English and director of the Center for the Humanities.
“Shadows Fall North” features historic preservationists and activists Valerie Cunningham and JerriAnne Boggis, who were consulting producers on the film with producers Brian and Nancy Vawter. Many of those most closely involved in the dedication of a memorial park last year — a dozen years after routine roadwork on a city road uncovered Portsmouth’s 18th-century African Burying Ground — also share their stories in the film.
“I'm very pleased that we're able to help write some of this important history back into the public record while celebrating the work of two very accomplished New Hampshire citizens,” Feintuch says.
The emotionally charged documentary charts slavery’s history: the advertisements for auctions in places like Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine; the efforts of 20 slaves in Portsmouth during the American Revolution who wrote eloquently to New Hampshire’s legislature asking for an end to slavery in that time of calls for rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — only to have their request “tabled” and ignored for centuries; the story of Elizabeth Virgil, who graduated from UNH in 1926 but who would not be hired to teach in New Hampshire and had to move south to find work.
“In the Center for the Humanities, we've always understood our mission to extend beyond the campus, using the perspectives of the humanities to help citizens reflect on what matters. And when nearly 700 people came to the premiere, it was clear to us that we'd created something that does matter to people.”
One of the next steps, Center for the Humanities assistant director Katie Umans confirms, is to bring the film home to UNH, with a screening planned for sometime this fall.
“We want to have the campus community who didn’t make it to Portsmouth experience the film,” she says.
Boggis and Cunningham sum up why “Shadows Fall North” is such an important film in two of the documentary’s many thought-provoking moments.
“American history has never been kind to the black story — the African story,” Boggis says. “It’s been erased time and time and time again.”
In Cunningham’s words, “This is not black history; this is our story. This is the American story.”
If the audience’s response at the premiere is any indication, that message is getting through.