The mostly white, male faces of the State House walls

By: - May 31, 2022 5:43 am

Portraiture in the State House fails to represent the state’s rapidly diversifying population, say sponsors of a bill that would have added the first portrait of a person of color. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Some look you sternly in the eyes. Others gaze off into an undefined distance. Along the walls of the State House hang portraits to commemorate individuals with ties to the state. The vast majority of them are white men.

Of the 213 portraits in the State House, nine are women, said Virginia Drew, director of the State House Visitor Center. Drew doesn’t know of a single portrait of a person of color on the walls, and, she said, “I know every painting.”

 A legislative effort would have changed that, adding a portrait of Wentworth Cheswill, a Newmarket resident considered to be the first African American elected to public office in the country when he became a town constable in 1768. But negotiations on House Bill 1586 broke down when lawmakers couldn’t agree on the appropriate medium to commemorate Cheswill (sometimes spelled Cheswell).

Because there’s no photograph or painting depicting Cheswill, Senate lawmakers argued that creating a fictional image of him would be a harmful racial fantasy and pushed instead for a commemorative plaque. But the House held firm on its position, with lawmakers speaking to the importance of visually representing the state’s diversifying population. A plaque, they said, would be inadequate.

 “As a person of color, I walk around these halls, and I see nobody that looks like me. I don’t know if there will ever be a portrait of somebody who looks like me,” said Rep. Manny Espitia, a Nashua Democrat, in a negotiating session on the bill. Espitia identifies as Chicano, someone of Mexican descent who was born in the U.S. He described the joy of speaking to students from the district he represents in Spanish when they visit the State House.

Harriet Patience Dame (left) was the first woman whose portrait was added to the State House collection in 1901.

 “I worry about the optics of a plaque versus a portrait… not raising it to the level of stature of a portrait,” Espitia said.

 Because of the divide, neither option will advance for now.   

 This is in spite of bipartisan agreement from both chambers that commemorating Cheswill was worthwhile. 

 Cheswill is known for numerous other historical contributions: He rode alongside Paul Revere and fought in the Revolutionary War. After he was first elected, he continued serving his hometown of Newmarket for all but one year of his life, working as a constable, teacher, justice of the peace, and selectman. He’s considered to be New Hampshire’s first archeologist by the New England Historical Society.

 Cheswill’s grandfather Richard Cheswill was a formerly enslaved person who went on to buy his freedom and purchase 20 acres of land in Newmarket. Because both Cheswill’s grandmother and mother were white women, he too was counted as white in the census, in spite of his biracial ancestry.

His mixed heritage was the topic of debate in the Legislature this year, as lawmakers grappled with how to portray him without an existing image.

 “What we know about Cheswill is that he had mixed heritage. And we don’t know: Was he light skinned? Did he have straight or curly hair? What were his features?” said Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, during negotiations on the bill. “We know none of this, and for that reason it was feared that whatever portrait was created would be an invention.”  

Watters gave a personal example of his son, who is African American, seeing “fantasized images” of happy slaves on the wall of the schoolhouse in fourth grade.  “In many circumstances, over many years, people’s imagined ideas of African Americans have been very problematic,” he said. 

 He also pointed to the portrait recently commissioned by the Vermont Legislature of Alexander Twilight, believed to be the first African American legislator in the U.S. “You’re looking at a quote unquote white man,” Watters said, of the portrait.

 A plaque, Watters argued, would commemorate Cheswill without creating a false image. Watters said he consulted with the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, and the organization agreed that presenting an invented image would be “troubling.”

 But House lawmakers disagreed, citing concerns about the impression that would make on the school children who visit the State House.

 “We have more diversity coming into the State House now with all different nationalities, including Black, mixed race, the entire gamut, and wouldn’t it wonderful for these children to identify with someone that is mixed race rather than looking at a plaque and not understanding that this person is perhaps like them?” said Rep. Claire Rouillard, a Goffstown Republican.

In his lifetime, Cheswill was a Freemason, and the organization was willing to fund the portrait, Paul Smith told the House committee on Legislative Administration in January. Smith, too, is a Freemason, in addition to his work as the clerk of the House. (He told lawmakers he was testifying an individual, and not in his official capacity.)

The artist chosen by the Freemasons, Ryan Flynn, recently completed a similar portrait using period documentation. Cheswill’s descendants would have been taken into account when creating a likeness of him.

Lawmakers who supported a portrait pointed out that artistic liberties have been taken with other portraits, like that of Marilla Ricker, who became the first female attorney in the state in 1890. “I mentioned to the artist that from the photographs we have of her, the image looked quite different,” Rouillard said. “And she said, ‘Well, Marilla Ricker looks very severe.’ She thought she’d take artistic license and soften it.”

A portrait of Marilla Ricker, New Hampshire’s first female attorney, is displayed on the first floor of the State House.

The portraits hanging in the State House represent people who have ties to New Hampshire, some more tenuous than others. Some connections are obvious: There’s a hall containing portraits of past governors. The first female executive councilor, Dudley Dudley, is on the second floor. 

Many of the early portraits were acquired by the Legislature because a family with the means to commission them gave them to the state as a gift, according to Drew. 

“I call this the hallway of randomness,” she said, describing a back hallway on the first floor. 

She pointed to the portrait of another white man: Zachariah Chandler, the first mayor of Detroit and an early governor of Michigan. His New Hampshire connection? He was born and raised here.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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