2:12 PM / Thursday June 1, 2023

2 Oct 2011

Civil rights and art in New Hampshire: Three stories

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October 2, 2011 Category: Diaspora Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Dr. Arthur Hilson and Alice Bernstein at Portsmouth High School.

(Photo by David M. Bernstein)


Three New Hampshire-ites,” important in the history of civil rights and of art, were interviewed in Portsmouth recently by journalist and Aesthetic Realism Associate Alice Bernstein. They are: Valerie Cunningham, historic preservationist, community activist, and founder of Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail; Dr. Arthur L. Hilson, civil rights activist, Baptist minister, educator, and a commissioner of Human Rights for NH; and Rebecca Ronstadt, publisher of Journal of the Print World and artist, who unearthed and helped to preserve a rare edition of original prints by John James Audubon.


Bernstein’s interviews for the oral history project, “The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights,” are sponsored by the not-for-profit Alliance of Ethics & Art based in New York City. Joining her were photographer/videographer David Bernstein, and project manager Steve Weiner.


For six years, she has been traveling around the country, interviewing men and women—over 170 to date—whose work for civil rights helped to make for greater justice in America and who deserve to be known. Interviews also include people in the sciences, education, and the arts, whose work adds to kindness, beauty, and greater interest in the world. Their lives are evidence of what Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism, explained: “Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way.”


Valerie Cunningham: Large Feeling about the Past


Ms. Cunningham is co-author with Mark Sammons of the landmark Black Portsmouth (UNH Press, 2004) with original research on Africans and African Americans in New England and Portsmouth, beginning over 350 years ago with the arrival of enslaved people in 1645. This interview took place in the Governor John Langdon House on Pleasant Street, one of 24 sites on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. Cunningham’s work is notable for her precision about dates, people, and places, and is immensely moving because of her large feeling about the past and desire to see meaning in it.


For example, she spoke of finding this 1807 entry in a church record: “To Venus—a Black—$1,” and her quest to find documents that could help bring this unknown woman to life with the humanity and dignity Venus was denied all these years. She also discussed how the local NAACP in 1964 tested the Civil Rights Act which mandated integration in public accommodations, at the Rockingham Hotel and Wentworth-by-the-sea, and described a reunion 40 years later to celebrate their success.


Rev. Dr. Arthur Hilson: Intensity and Reflection


Dr. Hilson’s rich, various work includes having marched with Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the South. He’s taught at the Universities of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, is pastor (for 21 years) of New Hope Baptist Church, and founding president of the Portsmouth Chapter of SCLC and of Amherst NAACP. The interview took place at Portsmouth High School where he teaches history, world religion, the 1960s, and classes called Another View—with a broad-ranging curriculum centered on diversity. The need for and popularity of his classes are notable, given the fact that New Hampshire ranks 48th in diversity in the United States.


Before the interview, he invited Bernstein to address his junior class (ages 16-17), about what brought her to Portsmouth. In a spirited interactive discussion with the students, Bernstein and her colleagues, described the oral history project and what Aesthetic Realism explains is the cause of racism and all injustice, contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” and the answer: criticizing contempt, including in oneself, and seeing the feelings of other people are as real and deep as our own. In the videotaped interview, Dr. Hilson spoke of the racism he witnessed and which he himself endured over the years, and he also reflected on the courageous efforts of many people to bring about change.


Rebecca Ronstadt: Truth and Imagination


Rebecca Ronstadt of Gilmanton, is an artist, printmaker, author, and publisher of The Journal of the Print World (JPW), the quarterly resource for artists, collectors, and everyone interested in the art of printmaking. JPW was founded in 1977 by Charles Stuart Lane, and after his passing in 2009, Ronstadt with her husband Robert, were determined to continue the legacy.


In a recorded conversation at Wentworth-by-the-Sea, Mrs. Ronstadt, told a remarkable story arising from her being invited in 2003 to join the board of New Hampshire Audubon in Concord. While getting acquainted with the building, she noticed in one of the eaves, a portfolio of prints, placed there years before, between two filing cabinets. These turned out to be, as she surmised, a rare collection of 103 original Audubon lithographs, “Quadrupeds of North America,” valued at over $1mm.


Research determined that the donor gave them to the Society with a proviso that they could never be sold. Because the Society did not have the budget to preserve them, Ronstadt decided to copy and reproduce the Audubon lithographs, to hand paint them, and sell her prints to raise funds to preserve the originals. Her prints were true to Audubon’s technique and vibrant coloring: at once faithful to the originals and yet imaginatively her own.


For more information about the oral history project, you may contact the Alliance of Ethics & Art, toll-free (888) 262-5310, and visit the website:

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