On January 1, 1958, the first branch of the NAACP in New Hampshire received its charter at People's Baptist Church in Portsmouth during the community's annual Emancipation Proclamation Celebration. This event occurred just a few weeks after passage of a U.S. Civil Rights Act created a commission to investigate discrimination and disfranchisement in the individual states. Meetings of the Portsmouth branch had been in members' homes, including the home of the founding president, Thomas Cobbs, a local businessman. During the 1960s, the membership had outgrown private homes so monthly meetings were moved to the Rockingham Hotel on State Street.
Bold, brave, dignified and united actions by ordinary people with extraordinary conviction advanced civil rights for black Americans during the 1960s. In regions like the New Hampshire seacoast discrimination often was subtle and difficult to target. But as problems were defined, solutions were developed and implemented. Direct actions were led by Emerson Reed, Legal Redress Officer of the Portsmouth branch, with support of the members, both white and black.
The local branch also contributed to efforts to enforce voting rights laws of 1960 and 1965 in the South. Funds were raised to assist branch President Cobbs with travel expenses when he volunteered to help register voters in 1965 during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Another contribution helped purchase school buses to take black Mississippians to the polls on Election Day. During the same time that Cobbs was serving on the New England Regional Board of Directors, he explained the goal of the NAACP in the Portsmouth newsletter:
"When you join the NAACP you pledge yourself to work with others toward our Association's ultimate goal, which is to establish equal rights for Americans of all races and creeds in respect to security of the person's voting, education, employment, treatment in the courts and public housing accommodations."
Despite all the accomplishments of its first decade, the Portsmouth branch was unable to retain its charter and went out of business. However, under the persistent leadership of Nathaniel Holloway, a community activist and visionary, the present branch of the Seacoast NAACP was chartered in 1974. Although much was changing in the post-Viet Nam era, racial discrimination had not ended in northern New England. Portsmouth was the only branch of the NAACP in the state of New Hampshire at the time and, therefore, it was looked to for guidance in times of crisis.
During the past 30 years, this branch has focused on education and has been engaged in mediating racial conflicts in area school systems, and addressing employment issues and prisoner rights. The branch also has been involved in community dialogues with area police departments and has established strong collaborative relationships with many community organizations.
One of the most rewarding struggles has been working for many years with a statewide coalition of businesses and nonprofit organizations advocating adoption of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday in the state. Nate Holloway was relentless in his efforts to help persuade the people of New Hampshire to adopt the holiday, which the legislature finally did in 1999.
Presidents since 1974 have included Holloway, Bea Goosdwin, Nathaniel Holloway (again), Juanita Bell, Algene Bailey, Sheila Reed Findlay, Charlotte Wood and Purnell "Fred" Ross.
Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African American Heritage, Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham (University Press of New England, 2004)
PBHT Resource Book, Mark Sammons and Valerie Cunningham (Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, Inc., 1998)
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