Cunningham, Hilson join history project on civil rights

24 October 2011

PORTSMOUTH — Two local African Americans were interviewed for an oral history project on the civil rights movement sponsored by New York-based organization Alliance of Ethics and Art.

Historian Valerie Cunningham, co-author of "Black Portsmouth" and creator of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, and the Rev. Arthur Hilson, minister of the New Hope Baptist Church, were interviewed for the project.

The Alliance of Ethics and Art was founded by journalist Alice Bernstein and her photographer husband, David Bernstein, as a means to gather interviews Alice has conducted over many years, she said.

"The Forces of Ethics in Civil Rights," as the project is called, is a compendium of 170 interviews, mostly of people who were rank-and-file civil rights workers and marchers, Bernstein said. Interviewees also include people in the sciences, education and the arts, whose work "adds to kindness, beauty, and greater interest in the world," she said.

Bernstein said people she's interviewed in the past six years live throughout the United States, but many have been from the South.

"I had no indication that I should go to New Hampshire for civil rights stories," she said, "because you never hear of it in connection with civil rights. There's a paucity of people of color, so this was new for me."

The interview with Cunningham took place in the Gov. John Langdon House on Pleasant Street, one of 24 sites on the Black Heritage Trail. Cunningham's work, Bernstein said, "is notable for her precision about dates, people and places, and is immensely moving because of her large feeling about the past and desire to see meaning in it."

For example, Bernstein said Cunningham spoke of finding this 1807 entry in a church record: "To Venus — a Black — $1," and her "quest to find documents that could help bring this unknown woman to life with the humanity and dignity Venus was denied all these years."

Cunningham also discussed how the local NAACP in 1964 tested the Civil Rights Act, which mandated integration in public accommodations, at the Rockingham Hotel and Wentworth by the Sea, and described a reunion 40 years later to celebrate their success.

The Rev. Hilson's "rich, varied work" includes having marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the South, Bernstein said. He's taught at the Universities of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and was founding president of the Portsmouth Chapter of SCLC and of the Amherst, Mass., NAACP.

The interview took place at Portsmouth High School, where he teaches history, world religion, the 1960s, and a course called Another View, with a broad-ranging curriculum centered on diversity.

The "need for and popularity of his classes are notable, given the fact that New Hampshire ranks 48th in diversity in the United States," Bernstein said.

In the videotaped interview, Hilson spoke of the racism he witnessed and which he himself endured over the years, and he also reflected on the courageous efforts of many people to bring about change.

For information about the oral history project, call (888) 262-5310 or visit

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