PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — They are free at last: Zebulon Gardner, Cipio Hubbarb, and Kittindge Tuckerman.
After nearly 234 years, a historical wrong was corrected Friday by Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, as she signed a bill into law that posthumously grants the three men and 11 other African slaves their freedom.
They were among 20 enslaved African men who fought the British in the Revolutionary War and petitioned the state to outlaw slavery, a move that would hold true to the ideals on which the revolution was based.
At the time, the New Hampshire General Assembly decided not to take action, pledging instead to address the Nov. 12, 1779, request at a more convenient time. The bill languished for more than two centuries.
“Their plea fell on deaf ears, and 14 of these men died as slaves,’’ Hassan said in a speech before she signed the bill in Portsmouth Friday. “It is a source of deep shame that our predecessors did not honor this request. But today, more than 230 years too late for their petition, we can say that freedom is truly an inherent right.”
The signing comes at a pivotal time for New Hampshire, where just 1 percent of residents are African-Americans. The state, last in the nation to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, has spent the past two decades coming to terms with its black history. It now has its first black cultural center and a black heritage trail. In 2003, a city construction crew unearthed coffins at a forgotten African Burying Ground, where some of the slaves who had signed the petition were buried.
As historians and activists launched a campaign to raise funds to erect a memorial park for the slaves, they pressed state Senator Martha Fuller Clark to answer the slaves’ petition for freedom and help bring honor to New Hampshire’s forgotten past.
Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill earlier this year.
The bill comes on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and as movies such as “Lincoln” have restarted conversations about topics including the North’s own slave past.
“Slavery was New Hampshire’s dirty little secret,’’ Thomas Watson, president of the Portsmouth Athenaeum said during the signing ceremony at Discover Portsmouth Center, a nonprofit museum and visitor center that manages the Black Heritage Trail.
The men who petitioned the state came from Africa as part of an enslaved labor force that helped to build Portsmouth. They were educated and had served alongside their owners in business and in war, according to local historian and author Valerie Cunningham, who has chronicled the African-American experience in New England.
In pleading for their freedom, they wrote: “Enact such laws whereby we may regain our liberty and be ranked in the class of free agents and that the name of slave may not be heard in a land gloriously contending for the sweets of freedom.”
The lawmakers response to the slave’s eloquence was muted: “The House is not ripe for a determination in this matter: Therefore ordered that the further consideration and determination be postponed till a more convenient opportunity.”
Six of the slaves eventually gained their freedom, but 14 died as slaves. Their names were Samuel Wentworth, Cato Warner, Seneca Hall, Pharoah Rogers, Cato Newmarch, Winsor Moffatt, Garrett Colton, Peter Frost, Nero Brewster, Quam Sherburne, Will Clarkson, Zebulon Gardner, Cipio Hubbard, and Kittindge Tuckerman.
After the governor’s speech, she sat at a table and used three pens to sign the bill, as the room of supporters erupted in cheers. “The bill is now law,’’ she said.
Pride filled the face of the Rev. Renee Rouse, whose father Henry B. Washington was the New Hampshire’s first black state representative. Rouse brought her youngest grandchild and three great-grandchildren to view the ceremony.
Joanne Dowdell, one of the first African-Americans from New Hampshire to have a vote in the Electoral College, said the signing amplifies the state’s rich black history and helps to continue the conversation about the role of blacks in shaping New England.
“This gives us a broader platform to talk about the issues, because when people talk about New England, they don’t talk about black New England,’’ Dowdell said. “We are participants in our history, not contributors. And this is not just our history. It’s American history.”