Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Question of Slavery

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 15, 2013.

Yes, there were slaves who lived in Exeter, New Hampshire. Contrary to what many of us learned in school, the New England states weren’t all abolitionist strongholds. There may not have been large plantations with hundreds of enslaved people, but there were slaves here nonetheless.

There were many levels of servitude in the colonial era. Apprentices and indentured servants served time without pay – but these arrangements had an endpoint and did not extend to one’s offspring. Slavery kept a person in bondage for life with little or no chance of escaping the system.

New England’s enslaved people lived under different conditions from those held in the Southern states. Long winters in the north meant that there were months out of each year that could be very unproductive agriculturally. Instead, slaves in the North performed other types of labor. Tasks such as chopping firewood, hauling water, laundry, fishing, loading and unloading ships as well as assisting an artisan master were performed by enslaved people. Boring, repetitive work – working the machinery, pulling the printing press, hand weaving, cleaning, sweeping, gardening and even some farming – these were done by people considered less-valuable to society.

There was also an element of social status in having an enslaved person working in your home. Why hire a housekeeper or cook when you can raise your social standing by being able to afford someone you actually own?

To those who were enslaved, of course, the system was horrid. Slaves had no rights. They had no right to themselves, they were not allowed to marry without consent, their children were owned by someone else at birth, they had no personal property and they could be bought or sold at will. It didn’t matter that they were living in New England, slavery was slavery it wasn’t ‘better’ just because it was in a northern colony.

In 1767, Exeter had 50 slaves living in town spread among a number of owners. By the time of the Revolution, the census takers changed the category from ‘slaves’ to ‘Negros slaves for life’ leaving it an open question whether all people of color were enslaved or not. At that time, there were 38 people listed in that group. By 1790, there were only two people listed as ‘slaves’ in town. Did the Revolution eliminate slavery in New Hampshire? Here the question becomes a bit muddy.

The short answer is that New Hampshire forgot to outlaw slavery. Legally, that is. The Revolution ruined slavery in the state, but never fully removed the system. Our state constitution, approved in 1783, states that ‘all men are born equal and independent’ but it is mute on the legality of slavery and the question was never challenged in court. A previous attempt, in 1779, by the Black community of Portsmouth to petition for freedom was tabled in the legislature indefinitely. A later act, passed in 1857, specified “no person, because of decent, should be disqualified from becoming a citizen of the state,” also didn’t specify that slavery was illegal. By that time, however, there were no slaves listed in the U.S. Census for New Hampshire. Most people assumed the practice was gone. Slavery was officially outlawed in New Hampshire with the passage of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865.

Another question that frequently arises in relation to slavery in Exeter is whether the Underground Railroad operated in town. Although there are some local legends, there doesn’t appear to be any actual evidence leading us to believe that fugitive slaves were hidden in town. There are a few houses that have hidden rooms in the layout, although these may simply be tricks of architecture used to conceal built-in bookshelves or utility access. The people who lived in the houses in the early part of the nineteenth century were not known to be abolitionists or Quakers. Of course, the Underground Railroad was a secret organization so it is always difficult to find evidence of its existence. There are no accounts of fugitive slaves in Exeter and, as far as we can tell, no stories from successful runaways that mention Exeter as having been part of the trip.

There is an old story about tunnels that lead from Cass Street to the river – purported to be part of the Underground Railroad. No tunnels have ever been found, and as a resident of Cass Street, I can assure readers that the ground beneath our houses is sand. We run sump pumps year-round thanks to a series of underground streams that run right through our basements. Digging and maintaining a tunnel would have been a very difficult and expensive undertaking, not to mention hard to conceal during construction. It also would have been wildly impractical since the river is less than one-eighth of a mile away. It would be far simpler to just wait until it was dark and run for it.

Exeter after the Revolution attracted a number of former slaves and at one time the free Black community was 4% of the town’s population (2010 census data indicates a 0.6% African American population in Exeter). Considered trustworthy, although a lower social class, African Americans in Exeter found it difficult to compete in the economic market once white immigrants began arriving from Canada, Poland, Germany and Ireland. Mill owners refused to hire the descendants of former slaves and the population gradually diminished over time.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Silent Movie Days

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 1, 2013.

In October of 1908 the new managers of the Exeter Opera House announced that they would re-open the theater with the latest technology in entertainment – motion pictures. The Opera House, which stood on Water Street where the Folsom Tavern stands today, had originally been a Baptist Church and the town armory. In 1887 the building was repurposed into a theater – presenting the usual fare of vaudeville, concerts and magic lantern shows that were popular at the time. In spite of its rather high-class name, the Opera House frequently had to assure townsfolk that the entertainment was wholesome and appropriate for patrons of all ages.

Movies, in their early days, did not necessarily have a positive reputation with the public. In some places, although not Exeter, short films could be viewed at a nickelodeon parlor. They were seen as a novelty, not serious entertainment or art. When the Opera House began showing moving pictures in early 1909, they were geared toward children and shown on Saturday afternoons. The advertising doesn’t even list titles for films, so we have no way of knowing the name of the first movie shown in Exeter. To reassure patrons, the Exeter News-Letter noted that, “Attendants will give courteous attention to the seating of ladies and children without escorts, and no effort will be spared to make the opera house a place of amusement that will attract the town’s best people.”

In the years that followed, there were often special showings of movies in town. Unity Hall on Elm Street and the Town Hall were frequent locations for viewing movies. Whether the equipment was rented from out of town or borrowed from the Opera House is unknown, but certainly acceptance of the new media was growing.

In 1915, local judge Edward Mayer began construction of the Ioka Theater up the street from the Opera House. It opened in November to great fanfare with a special presentation of “Birth of a Nation” – a groundbreaking if controversial film. The film, with its skewed depiction of the South during reconstruction, veneration of the Ku Klux Klan and actors in blackface, was banned from many cities. In smaller locations, like Exeter, the film was forgiven for its many, many faults because nothing like it had ever been seen before. With a run time of two and a half hours, it was eight times longer than the average movie. It was almost like going to see a play – except that it was a motion picture – who could imagine such a thing?

The Ioka, with its plush new seating quickly put the Opera House out of business. Unlike the Opera House, the Ioka was designed for motion pictures and only occasionally served as a venue for other types of performances.

For nearly twenty years movies shown at the Ioka were silent.

The first talking picture shown in Exeter was “Should a Girl Marry?” shown on March 19, 1929 with six other short sound features. Like “The Jazz Singer,” which was released two years earlier but does not appear to have been shown in Exeter, this film was only partially sound with whole segments that were still silent. The sound must have been jarring when it intruded into the film.

Audiences remained comfortable with silent films for many years, as they were still the primary source of entertainment. Two weeks after “Should a Girl Marry?” premiered in town, the Ioka hosted a benefit for the local Boy Scouts with a showing of Buster Keaton in “The Cameraman.”

“The Cameraman” was produced for MGM by Keaton in 1928. Keaton, a former vaudevillian, was known for his physical humor – generally performed with deadpanned facial expressions that gave him the nickname “the great stone face.”

“The Cameraman” tells the tale of poor tintype photographer who falls madly in love with an MGM employee. To win her love, he decides to become a newsreel photographer in spite of the fact that he does not know how to use a movie camera. Hilarity ensues as he bumbles his way through his first few attempts and later gets caught up in a ‘Tong war’ in Chinatown.

Unlike many actors of the silent era, Keaton managed to make the change to sound pictures by adapting. He continued to write, direct, act and produce his own films, although not quite to the level he wanted.

The Ioka too, adapted to sound. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, the Ioka flourished, upgrading its sound system numerous times. Within a few short years, moviegoers completely lost their love affair with silent films. Watching one today takes one back in time to when the Ioka was the best show in town.

The Exeter Theater Company is holding an event, "IOKA's Silent Film Night: Buster Keaton Double Feature", on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 7pm at Town Hall. See http://bit.ly/WNqJMq for more information.