African Burying Ground Dedication, Sunday, May 23
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories that will appear in the Portsmouth Herald and Seacoast Sunday in the next six weeks, leading up to the May 23 dedication of the African Burying Ground Memorial Park on Chestnut Street in Portsmouth.
Master woodworker Jeffrey Cooper has been given a most meaningful task by Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground Committee. In his shop on McDonough Street, he has been creating the nine plain pine caskets that will soon carry the remains of 13 Africans who once walked the streets of the city and who will be interred with great dignity and respect at the African Burying Ground Memorial Park next month.
They are among some 200 people of African descent who were buried in a field on the outskirts of the city in the 18th and 19th centuries – in what was called the Negro burying ground. Most of the remains were uncovered in 2003 during utility work on Chestnut Street, and have been stored since awaiting reburial. The longest casket Cooper has made is 70 inches by 25 inches, and will contain almost a full sized set of remains. The smallest is 19 inches by 9 inches, with five compartments to hold small pieces of bone found in 2008 that DNA testing has shown to be from five different people. Two of the caskets fit on top of each other, because when remains were discovered 12 years ago, a 12-year-old child was found buried directly above an adult male.
Consulting archaeologist Kathleen Wheeler said the two might well have been related and should be reburied as they were found. All nine will fit together like puzzle pieces in a large concrete crypt at the burying ground site. When the three largest are placed side by side, the carving on the lids will form a Sankofa – a West African symbol that translates as “reach back and get it.” The symbol will mirror the Sankofa mosaic on a lid that will be placed atop the caskets at the conclusion of the reburial ceremony. “It will be like a foreshadow,” said Cooper, “like what’s in the ground and hidden is a reflection of what’s on top.” And then his handiwork will likely not be seen again.
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By Deborah McDermott
Posted Apr. 19, 2015 at 2:01 AM
Updated at 7:41 AM