Valerie Cunningham, Founder of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail

Valerie Cunningham was inspired by her parents to work for racial justice. Clarence and Augusta Cunningham were active in the local Civil Rights Movement when Valerie was growing up in Portsmouth and they encouraged her efforts to learn more about the lost and forgotten history of African Americans in New Hampshire.

Valerie served a term as secretary of the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP which her parents had helped to establish, and in April 1965 she marched for school integration in Boston with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was during the turbulent 60s that Cunningham began to document the early history of Africans in New Hampshire, laying a foundation for the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.

Established in 1995 as an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, the Black Heritage Trail has become a model for grassroots historic preservation and partnerships, using public signage, educational programming and community celebrations to raise awareness of African-American history in northern New England.

In 2003, the mayor of Portsmouth appointed Cunningham as a representative of the ‘descendent community’ to a committee for creating a memorial park at an 18th century African Burying Ground, located at Site #10 on the Black Heritage Trail. The Trail holds events each year at the site in memory of the unnamed buried there.

Cunningham conducts scheduled Sankofa Tours that include sites related to the modern Civil Rights Era and the African Burying Ground. Customized Black New England Tours take visitors off the beaten track to reveal often overlooked stories of the African-American presence here and beyond. Examples of such stories are included in the book Valerie Cunningham co-authored with historian Mark J. Sammons, Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage.