by Sarah E. Vendt `08
For nearly four years, I’ve studied history at Plymouth State University. During the past year, I’ve been working at the Michael J. Spinelli Jr. Center for University Archives and Special Collections as a student worker. It’s a job that requires me to look deeper into the history of the school and town, and it has helped me realize that I had been so entrenched in my studies that I had forgotten history is everywhere—including right here on campus.
Throughout my undergraduate career, I had heard rumors that Silver Center for the Arts stands on the former site of a house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Not long after starting my work-study job at the archives, I decided to inquire about this. Alice Staples, the University archivist, informed me that the house in question had been inhabited by famed abolitionist Nathaniel Peabody Rogers around 1825.
Alice went on to note that the keystone from the Rogers house is now a part of the brickwork on the Silver Center for the Arts, and that a plaque memorializing the house was removed when Silver was renovated in 1992. The plaque had been stored in the archives ever since.
My curiosity piqued, I found the plaque along with a collection of Rogers memorabilia and began to do my own research into Rogers’ life. Born in Plymouth in 1794, Rogers practiced law in town for nearly two decades. In the 1830s he became involved in the abolitionist movement and began contributing articles to abolitionist newspapers including the Concord, NH-based Herald of Freedom. In 1839, he assumed editorship of the Herald, which became a leading advocate for racial equality as well as for women’s rights and temperance. An admirer of music and the arts, Rogers included among his circle of friends famous musicians and poets, many of whom were also vocal abolitionists.
As I leafed through the scrapbooks and writings, history came alive for me as it never had before. I could feel the compassion that Rogers had for slaves, the value he placed on education and free speech, and the love of music that he and his family shared. It was then that a piercing grief shot through me. The house, once tangible evidence that such a great man lived here in Plymouth, was gone forever. I would never see the secret closet where it is believed Rogers hid slaves who were on their way to Canada. Nor would I see the parlor where Rogers entertained fellow abolitionists like journalist William Lloyd Garrison, poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and prominent British reformer George Thompson, among others.
Then it occurred to me that, as great a loss as it was, there isn’t a more appropriate building than Silver to occupy the site where Rogers once lived. Music, art, and theater permeate the space. Silver performances of all types compel people to think. Through its programs and performances, Silver carries on the spirit of Rogers in terms of culture, education, music, and the celebration of free speech.
My discovery of the Rogers plaque and my research into his life sparked an initiative across campus and the community to restore the plaque to its former place on Silver’s façade. Through the efforts of Assistant Professor of History Whitney Howarth, as well as those of many individuals and groups throughout PSU and the Plymouth community, a ceremony commemorating Nathaniel Rogers took place on February 14, 2008 as part of PSU’s Black History Month celebration. During the ceremony, the plaque was unveiled along with a photographic copy of an original portrait of Nathaniel P. Rogers, which is now on display in Silver’s Main Street entrance.
The process of researching the life of one of Plymouth’s most noteworthy sons and having a hand in restoring the Rogers plaque to Silver has not only been a gratifying experience, but an invaluable history lesson.
Top photo: The plaque honoring Nathaniel Peabody Rogers. Bottom photo: Nathaniel Peabody Rogers’ house, circa 1953-54.
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