One of New Hampshire's black kings, Nero Brewster, introduced legislation to the General Assembly in 1779 that would become law 234 years later. It was a fitting, if tardy, tribute to an extraordinary man.
Black King Nero had been born of royal lineage in Africa early in the 18th century. As a child he was violently captured, taken to the American colonies and sold to a wealthy tavern owner in Portsmouth. In that busy seacoast town he reclaimed his royal status as the acknowledged leader of the region’s black community.
For many years, Nero won the annual Negro Election and led the region’s Africans in a raucous, daylong celebration.
Nero was one of at least 31 elected black kings and governors identified by historians throughout New England from about 1750 to 1850.
In the royal colonies where the Crown appointed the governor – New Hampshire and Massachusetts – black men elected black kings.
In the charter colonies where white men were allowed to elect their own governor – Rhode Island and Connecticut – black men elected black governors. (For a list of known black governors of Connecticut, click here.)
Black King Nero would be elected every June, during Portsmouth’s “Negroes Hallowday,” or “Election Day.” It was the most important day of the year, an annual celebration held on the same day the white men of New England’s towns and cities gathered to vote for their leaders.
Negroes Hallowday was held in colonial Boston on the Common, in Salem and in Lynn, Mass., in Newport and Narragansett, R.I., in Hartford, Norwich and Derby, Conn., and in at least a dozen other cities and towns.
For New England’s African slaves, Election Day was more than a rare break from toil and a chance to have fun. It was a day to express pride in their African heritage. It was a rehearsal for their role as free civic participants – a role they hoped to play some day.
And it was a way to establish an informal government and a social order over which the black king or black governor was magistrate, spokesman, negotiator and leader.
Rum, Gingerbread and Election Cake
Election Day began with the Puritans as a jolly secular holiday. The colonists traveled to town in spring or early summer to elect their local leaders. Some had to travel quite far, and might stay overnight.
Important families hosted election-day celebrations, with rum and gingerbread and thick, fruit-studded election cakes.
The masters let the slaves take Election Day off or brought them into town, partly because slaves “were too restless at home to be of any use till (the election holidays) were over,” according to Salem minister William Bentley.
And so the bondsmen started organizing their own elections and their own celebrations, first in Newport and Hartford and then throughout New England.
In Connecticut, an enslaved African named London served as the first black governor known to history. London, who belonged to Capt. Thomas Seymour, was elected Connecticut governor in Hartford in 1755.
As Connecticut Colony's population grew, black residents began to elect leaders who lived nearby. Historians know of black governors in Derby, Durham, Farmington, New Haven, New London, Norwich and Seymour.
Real Black Kings
Like Nero, some of the black kings were real African kings, and the Negroes Hallowday owes much to the Africans’ tradition of honoring their own royalty. Even before the Negro Election began in Lynn, African immigrants honored a prince of Africa named Pompey. He had been captured and sold, but freed when he grew too old to work.
Pompey moved to a little glade near the Saugus River, where every year he hosted a holiday for the African bondsmen from nearby towns. He served as host, guest of honor and master of ceremonies. Women picked flowers to crown old King Pompey, and the men would sit and talk about happier times on the Gambia River in West Africa.
A Monarch Held in Esteem
Black King Nero was a man of dignity and stature. When he died in 1789, his obituary described him as, “A Monarch, who, while living, was held in reverential esteem by his subjects consequently, his death is greatly lamented.”
Black kings and governors throughout New England were similarly men who commanded respect -- because of their achievement, their strength or their ability.
Hartford’s Black Governor Peleg Nott, described as “a first rate feller,” was well traveled, having driven a provision cart during the American Revolution. Black Governor Tobiah of Derby, Conn., was “a man of tact, courage and unusual intelligence.”
Black Governor Guy Watson of South Kingston fought in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment at the battles of Red Bank and Ticonderoga.
Black Governor Quosh Freeman of Derby, Conn., was a “man of herculean strength, a giant six-footer.”
Like all of the black kings and governors, Black King Nero’s rank reflected his master’s rank. Col. William Brewster owned the Bell Tavern on the corner of Broad and High streets in Portsmouth. It was a well-known gathering place for patriots during the Revolutionary War.
Black King Nero embraced the revolutionary ideals of equality and freedom discussed so ardently within its walls.
On each Election Day in June, Black King Nero dressed in his finest clothes to lead a procession of slaves and freedmen from Portsmouth and neighboring towns. He was accompanied by his honor guard, who were perhaps decked out in a display of feathers, flowers and ribbons.
The parade started with the crack of a gunshot. Down Middle Street they marched, and out Middle Road to a flat open area called Portsmouth Plains. They borrowed swords, guns and even horses from their masters for the festive parade.
Marchers made a happy racket with many African languages, more gunshots and music from tambourines, banjos, fiddles and drums. All the slaves wore their best clothes, often hand-me-downs from their masters that they had imaginatively altered with an African flair.
An idea of what their outfits looked like can be gleaned from a description of a runaway slave. He wore a Saxon blue jacket with bright green baize lining, slash sleeves and small metal buttons, a brown sleeveless jacket and scarlet breeches.
In Portsmouth and elsewhere, bondsmen deliberately played the fool in their gaudy Election Day costumes. White people looked on with enjoyment, belittling the slaves’ deportment and clothing as “fantastic.”
Today, historians note the white onlookers didn’t understand the black celebrants were making fun of their stiffness and pretensions – and their obtuseness in not grasping they were being mocked.
Historians view their antics as a form of self-preservation. They didn’t want white people intimidated by their claim to participate in government.
The slaves' bitterness and contempt for their masters does show clearly in a written document signed by Black King Nero and 19 others.
Haranguing and Socializing
When the marchers reached the Plains, Nero and his opponent harangued each other as the crowd socialized and celebrated. Women, who couldn't vote, lobbied for their favorite candidates. The revelers reunited with friends and family who lived far away, and exchanged news and opinion about the white people they served.
More than a hundred took part, for in Portsmouth alone there were 124 male and 63 female slaves in 1767, according to Brewster’s Rambles. (The total population of Portsmouth, one of the biggest cities in the colonies, was 4,466 that year.)
After about three hours of electioneering and merriment, men voted and Nero was declared the black king. He then announced his court: Viceroy Willie Clarkson, Sheriff Jock Odiorne and Deputy Sheriff Pharoah Shores. All came from Africa.
Who ran against Black King Nero, the acclaimed leader of Portsmouth’s African community? One wonders if it was ever Prince Whipple, the literate servant of William Whipple, who lived in what is now the Moffatt-Ladd House.
Prince Whipple was born a prince of Africa and sold into slavery as a child. He served as General Whipple’s bodyguard during the Revolutionary War and was with him at the Battle of Saratoga and at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
According to legend, Prince Whipple accompanied George Washington during his famous crossing of the Delaware.
In the 1851 painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, some think the black oarsman is Prince Whipple. A version of the painting now hangs in Marblehead’s Abbot Hall.
Regardless of whom he defeated at the polls, Black King Nero led the raucous procession back to his master's house for a victory party. As at the other Negroes Hallowdays, Nero’s master paid for the meal, though the black slaves and freedmen prepared it.
The black elections could get expensive for the masters. In Narragansett, R.I., E.R. Potter’s slave John was elected governor. Potter, a state and federal legislator, told John that one of them would have to give up politics or the expenses would ruin them both. John stepped down.
Black Kings and Courts
At his victory party in Portsmouth, Black King Nero served as host, master of ceremonies and guest of honor. He and his so-called Negro Court were toasted indoors, while games were played and athletic competitions held outside.
At the end of the day the celebrants moved to the slave quarters, where they . danced energetically to fiddle tunes of West African origin or influence.
The election was only the beginning. Throughout the next year, Black King Nero served as leader, spokesman, arbiter and magistrate. He meted out judgments and punishments to slaves accused of petty crimes.
The shadow court system worked well for the white population as well as the black.
Trial and Punishment
In 1859, Portsmouth columnist C.W. Brewster described one trial in a typically condescending (for whites) account:
If any black was guilty of any crime which was regarded disgraceful to the ebony society, he was duly tried and punished. Nero's viceroy was Willie Clarkson, a slave of Hon. Peirse Long. A report comes that Prince Jackson, slave of Nathaniel Jackson of Christian Shore, has stolen an ax. The Sheriff, Jock Odiorne, seizes him, the court is summoned, and King Nero in majesty sits for the examination. The evidence is exhibited, Prince is found guilty, and condemned to twenty lashes on the bare back, at the town pump on the parade. There was a general gathering of the slaves on such occasions; and the Sheriff, after taking off his coat and tying up the convict to the pump, hands the whip to his deputy, Pharaoh Shores, addressing the company, "Gemmen, this way we s'port our government" - turning to his deputy - "Now, Pharaoh, pay on !" After the whipping was over, the sheriff dismissed the prisoner, telling him that the next time he is found this side Christian Shore, unless sent by his master, he will receive twenty lashes more. Prince, however, did not reform; for, soon after, he was found guilty of larger thefts and brought under the cognizance of the county court.
“Here, we feel a just equality”
The festivities and satire of Negroes Hallowday belied a serious purpose, just as the operation of the Negro Court throughout the year did not signify the slaves’ acceptance of their inferior status.
During the Revolutionary War, Black King Nero led at least one meeting of 20 black slaves to discuss their freedom. He may well have held more.
Inspired by revolutionary ideals and hatred of their miserable servitude, they drew up a petition demanding their freedom. Some of the language may have been borrowed from the fervent patriots
To Continue Reading . . .
This story about black kings and governors was updated in 2017.