Giving Due Honor to Overlooked Black Man
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“Racism's a dirty word,” says Richard Alperin. “I don't like to bring it up often, but I've seen no other reason why some of the citizens in town would have put these roadblocks up for me and these hurdles to jump over if it weren't for that.”
In the small town of Newmarket, New Hampshire lies a gravesite of a man whose memory, like his own tombstone, was nearly buried and forgotten; a man of great reputation and even greater accomplishments.
“Everything about Wentworth Cheswell cries exceptionalism,” says JeriAnne Boggis.
Wentworth Cheswell was born in 1746. His father, Hopestill, was the son of a freed slave. Hopestill was an architect and carpenter who made sure, though his son was of a mixed race, that Wentworth be formally educated. Formal education was rare in eighteenth century Colonial America. Much more so for a man of color.
Alperin says, “There really wasn't much of public schooling back then. And for Wentworth to actually be studying under a Harvard graduate all of the main subjects, that was almost unheard of back then for even a Caucasian person. So to have someone who was mulatto to get that kind of an education was incredible.”
In 1995, New Hampshire graduate student, Erik Tuveson, wrote his thesis on the remarkable life of Wentworth Cheswell.
“It became kind of this intriguing story of who was this character? What was it that enabled him to be and to succeed in this society, this environment?” says Tuveson.
After his schooling, Wentworth returned home to Newmarket to become a schoolteacher and raise a family. He developed such a good reputation that in 1768 he was elected as the town constable, making him the first man of color ever elected to public office in the U.S.
During this time, Colonial America was engaged in the Revolutionary War. Cheswell was loyal to the patriot cause and became a dispatch rider, like the much better-known Paul Revere. He even fought as a private in one of the most significant moments in the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Saratoga.
“We do know that he served three months under Colonel John Langdon,” says Tuveson, “who was a kind of a famous New Hampshire patriot and military officer at the Battle of Saratoga. So he actually did head out, marched out, and three months of duty, armed duty, fighting in Saratoga.”
How does a man of great character and reputation nearly vanish from American history? Jerianne Boggis has a theory.
“His story disappears from history, disappears from our knowledge, tells us another story as well, that tells us that we don’t value that story when it comes to a person of color,” says Boggis.
In 2002, New Market local, Richard Alperin discovered his home was built on the foundation where Cheswell’s home once sat. That discovery encouraged him to dig deeper into history. Ultimately, he found the gravesite of Wentworth and his family, only the site had been poorly kept.
“It was terrible,” says Alperin. “I mean, it was completely overgrown. Most of the headstones were broken and several of them, most of them were actually buried. So that's how it started. And naively, I said to myself, ‘I'm going to fix up the graveyard.’ Some citizens in Newmarket decided that they would put up barriers to my efforts to fix up the graveyard and bring back the memory of Wentworth Cheswell. They tried to get me arrested because I was not aware of a law that said that you can't go into a private family graveyard without written authorization from a proven living descendant.”
After four years of hard work and with the help of living descendants, Alperin raised funds to clean up and restore the gravesite. In 2007, he convinced the state historical society to grant the resting place an historical marker.
“He was forgotten about for too long. Forgotten about for his accomplishments. Forgotten about as being a founding father of the town,” says Alperin. And, you know – I just don't feel it's right that a town should not even know who was here before us, because it's due to these people who came before us that we are here today.”
Wentworth Cheswell served in public office in every year of his adult life but one. Amongst his notable achievements, he was an auditor, an historian, an assessor, an archaeologist, a judge, and a coroner.
Tuveson says, “He was a respected member of the community that was often a representative of one form or another in his town government. He served in a lot of different capacities. So he wasn't necessarily just wanting to be at the top and nothing else was good enough for him. He would serve in whatever role was deemed to be necessary and appropriate.”
“I mean, we're a country that values firsts. And not to acknowledge the accomplishment of a man at that time is always just mind blowing. How do we not know these stories?” says Boggis.
Though he was nearly forgotten, folks like Rich Alperin have fought to revive the memory of Wentworth Cheswell and to make sure that the Cheswell name endures.
“Underdogs need to be helped up,” says Alperin. “And for what this man did for his entire life, he needs to be remembered and he needs to be helped up. And if I can do it in any way I can, I'm going to do it. Any way I can.”
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