by Dan Weeks
In 1645—decades before the colony of New Hampshire was independently established—historical records show that the purchase and sale of human beings began in the “Live Free” state. In that year, an African man was kidnapped in Guinea and brought to Portsmouth for a life of servitude. His European enslaver would later be punished by the local Puritan authorities—not for owning another human being but for working his human chattel on the Sabbath.
On the eve of the Revolutionary War in 1773, official statistics showed that 674 persons of African descent were enslaved in New Hampshire. One of them, Prince Whipple, fought for American independence as the property of General William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. After serving in the battles of Saratoga and Delaware, Prince Whipple joined with eighteen other enslaved Africans in petitioning the New Hampshire legislature for emancipation. Although the petition rightly claimed that slavery was incompatible with “justice, humanity, and the rights of mankind,” it was ignored. Legal enslavement persisted in the state I love until 1857.
In 1835, New Hampshire’s first integrated school was established in Canaan. Noyes Academy attracted gifted students like the future abolitionist minister Henry Highland Garnet, who had escaped enslavement in the South and was denied the right to travel in a stagecoach in the North. Within months, proslavery newspapers like the New Hampshire Patriot were viciously attacking the school and Canaan was declared “N***** Town.” Local mobs forced its students to flee, fired cannon at the homes of its supporters, and pulled the school from its very foundation with 90 oxen. The damaged building was later burned to the ground.
From the founding of our state until the 20th century, New Hampshire’s economy benefited handsomely from the enslavement and legal subjugation of human beings. Our merchants and tradesmen built and outfitted ships that transported human cargo across the seas; our farms and factories sold garments and agricultural goods to southern plantations; our industrialists purchased cotton subsidized by generation after generation of enslaved, and de-facto enslaved, people to power our mighty mills along the Merrimack, to name a few.
Neither these nor any other facts about New Hampshire’s “shadow” history of enslavement and segregation, from 1645 to the present, were taught to me in school. If House Bill 544 becomes law, their teaching as “divisive concepts” which point to systemic racism would become illegal in New Hampshire schools, universities, state agencies, and any private business or nonprofit that does work on behalf of the State.
The bill, which recently passed the House Administration Committee with full Republican support, claims to oppose racism and sexism by sweeping the very possibility of each under the carpet. It would be laughable if it did not represent such a bold attack on our Constitutional rights—and truth itself—in a society that aspires to “liberty and justice for all.”
Echoing the former president’s dangerous attempts to further supplant honest inquiry with a white-washed “patriotic history” of the United States, this “divisive concepts bill” would ban any training or curriculum which accurately illuminates the role that people of European descent like me have played in creating and maintaining structures of racial inequity that persist in the present day.
If a high school history teacher informs his students of the well-documented linkages between notions of “meritocracy” and racial oppression—notwithstanding the fact that one so-called race was legally barred from learning for a quarter-millennium and is systematically denied an equal education today—he would be breaking the law. Should a student inquire of him why the average child of European descent is born with nearly ten times the household wealth of a child of African descent today, following centuries “white” affirmative action, the teacher had best leave the room.
If a college professor is assigned to teach her students cultural competence and dares to suggests that an individual “should feel discomfort…on account of race or sex,” she too would be breaking the law. Tough luck if her students encounter the uncomfortable reality of racial oppression on their own and seek to understand their privileged position in the American caste system—they had better not turn to their instructors for help.
If a diversity trainer at a nonprofit agency assisting homeless individuals correctly identifies certain “privileges [and] status” as having been legally ascribed to one racial group, their employer could have its government contracts canceled and be declared ineligible for any future work on behalf of the state. Instead of permitting such “divisive concepts,” the authors of HB 544 would rather impose their own apparent beliefs that people in need of help are nothing more than the victims of their own “laziness,” “stupidity,” or “criminality”—traits long assigned by those in power to people of color to justify their continued subjugation.
I believe New Hampshire is better, and braver, than this. So do our state’s largest employer, Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and leading social service providers like New Futures and Neighborworks Southern NH. So do some of our most respected businesses like Velcro USA, Stonyfield, and Hypertherm. So do leading universities like UNH and SNHU, and the largest private investors in social well-being like the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and Community Loan Fund.
These and dozens of other business and civic institutions, organized by New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility, have publicly declared their opposition to HB 544 out of the simple conviction that Granite Staters do not hide from hard truths. We confront our past with courage, knowing that good and bad alike are intertwined in any human story. Only by doing so, can we build an even better future marked by “justice, humanity, and the rights of [hu]mankind” in this state we love.
Dan Weeks is a 12th-generation Granite Staters and director at ReVision Energy, New Hampshire’s largest clean energy company, which opposes HB 544. He lives in Nashua with his wife and kids.