Author sheds light on Exeter’s black history through books
Renay Allen has been researching the history of Exeter’s black community for three years. But when she came across the story of Jude Hall, a black man who won his freedom fighting in the Revolutionary War and then had three of his children kidnapped, she felt compelled to act. .
“He would have been my neighbour, he lived a mile from me, and there were only 10 houses there at the time,” High Street resident Allen said of Hall, who lived on Drinkwater Road. “I would have known him walking around town, I would have passed him. When I walk around town, I think it’s the exact same steps he, his son, his wife took around town and back.
His desire for more led Allen to write “The Incident at the Exeter Tavern,” a city-set mystery that combines Hall’s history with current events, and “The Incident at the Ioka,” which gives life to the story of James Monroe Whitfield. , a black abolitionist poet also from Exeter. A third book due next year will be set in the suffragette era and portray a successful black hotelier in Hampton Beach, originally from Exeter. Proceeds from the books are being used to materialize plans for a proposed pocket park, which will recognize Exeter’s historic black community.
Hall’s story is not widely known, and Allen felt it was time to change that. He was first enslaved on a farm off Drinkwater Road in Kensington, then joined the army during the Revolutionary War and fought for eight years, including at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He won his freedom and, back in Exeter, married and built a house on Drinkwater Road. Two of his sons were stolen at sea, Allen said, and it is suspected they were sold into slavery because they were never seen again.
A third son contracted a Newburyport man to get on a boat, but when he told his mother she objected, saying he was too young. When he changed his mind, a local man, Wedgewood, who lived just up the street from Hall’s on the corner of Drinkwater and High streets, “came down, tied him up” and took him to the man in Newburyport. He was never seen again. Allen was horrified that a citizen of the same town was to blame.
“Nobody does anything, it was kind of swept under the rug,” she said. “I felt very strongly that this had to come out from under the rug.”
She hopes the crime will resonate with modern-day Exeter residents. “We are 200 years later telling the story,” she said. “If you can turn that feeling into something positive to help the black community today, that’s what I’m trying to achieve.”
The first book in the trilogy, ‘The Incident at the Exeter Tavern’, follows detective and artist Maryvonne Mini, who discovers something amiss during the city’s annual Independence Festival. The story features local places like Joe Saint’s Bakery and town characters, like a historian named “Brim”, who may be familiar to residents.
“I only intend for the book to be read locally, and to make it more interesting for locals, I’ve used local settings. It makes things fun for people,” she said. “It’s a wonderful community and I try to give an idea of it. This community can really accomplish good things once it understands the truth.
In the first book, Mini develops an ability to see into the past while painting and learns the history of the town from characters like renowned author Tabitha Gilman Tenney.
“When you’re an artist, you sit for a long time and watch something while you paint it,” she said. “So why not show the scene coming to life from the past.”
The second book in the trilogy centers on the disappearance of a member of the Select Board as a hurricane approaches the city. Mini’s ability to travel back in time leads her to hear Exeter abolitionist Betsy Clifford in her Water Street millinery in 1841 and learn about abolitionist-era communities. Clifford tells the story of Whitfield, the town poet. It also includes more intrigue than the first book, with hints of secret passages in the Ioka and the Masonic lodge in town.
“There have always been rumors since colonial times that there were secret passages to the river from the Clifford house, so I had that in mind,” she said. “It’s not proven, it’s an urban legend and it’s so old they could have caved in or something.”
Mini is assisted in the present day by barber Jim Nubbins, a local bricklayer, who helps track down the missing coach, who also happens to be her uncle. “Crime never gets solved,” she said. “Whether there was a crime is not specified, there is a shroud of mystery.”
The third book in the trilogy will feature a relative of Tobias Cutler, another former slave who moved to town after winning his freedom – and is set in 1903. This relative, John Garrison Cutler, owned a hotel in Hampton Beach, which was famous for hosting politicians.
Her three books can be traced to a project Allen undertook to document Exeter’s historic black community. She posted a copy of her report on her website, gave people ideas for how to use them, and eventually decided to try one of those ideas herself, writing a play or a book featuring light the story.
“I had always heard about black history in America and always assumed that all the bad things happened in the south and the north was so innocent,” she said. “When I found out that wasn’t the case, especially when I found out that a boy had been robbed on the street next door, I felt like I had been duped. I thought that if I tried to help move the story forward, maybe more people would have similar reactions and it would help the world become fairer.
Lara Bricker is a former editor for the Exeter News-Letter, the author of two non-fiction books and a resident of Exeter. She can be contacted at email@example.com. An audio podcast version of Exeter Life is available at anchor.fm/exeterlife and most podcast platforms.