On Dec. 30, Rosalyne Spindel Bernstein, scion of a prominent Jewish family, and a leader in Portland’s and Maine’s art and education communities, died at the age of 90.

A few days later, Janet Mills, a member of one of Maine’s most important political families, was sworn in as the first female governor in the state’s history.

The two events were front-page news but seemed to have little else in common. But the historical record tells us otherwise. Both families played an important role in ending one of Maine’s most notorious discriminatory practices. This year marks the 50th anniversary of this historic moment in the state’s history.

For much of its two centuries of existence, Maine’s Jewish community, along with the state’s Catholic and African American communities, were social outsiders. They were kept at a distance by groups as notorious as the so-called “Know-Nothing” Party of the 1850s, which burned Catholic churches, and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, which banished Jews and Catholics from Portland’s political leadership.

Beyond the prejudice against minorities, there was also a longstanding policy of discrimination by many of Maine’s finest hotels and resorts. A 1955 report stated that “Aside from Florida, no state surpasses Maine in its blatant bias toward vacationers because of religion. The state’s resorts seem to labor under little inhibition in voicing this bias. They make their restrictive policies known in explicit terms.”

During the 1950s and 1960s, both the Portland Country Club and the Cumberland Club became known for Jewish opposition to their discriminatory membership policies.

Sumner Bernstein, a prominent attorney who, in 1955, became the first Jew elected to the Portland City Council since the 1920s, and his wife, Rosalyne, circulated a “Cumberland Club Letter,” which demanded that any organization to which they belonged hold no meetings at the Cumberland Club as long as it did not admit Jews.

But it took the anger and persistence of state Sen. S. Peter Mills of Farmington — a non-Jewish Republican legislator, and the father of Maine’s current governor — to finally breach the almost unbreakable barriers erected by many of Maine’s resorts and exclusive social clubs.

The road to a major victory for Maine’s Jewish and African American communities began in 1969, when then-Gov. Kenneth Curtis discovered that many Maine resort hotels and clubs, while continuing to practice social and religious exclusion, had liquor licenses issued by the state.

The progressive Curtis proposed a bill denying a liquor license to any organization that practiced discrimination.

But who to sponsor L.D. 1349, a bill titled “An act relating to discrimination on account of race and religion”? The legislation mandated “once and for all that the policy of this State that those who hold out their services generally … shall not covertly and under cover quietly practice any type of discrimination against people because of their religion, their race or their ethnic origin.” If they did, Maine would deny them a state liquor license.

Gov. Curtis found a rather unusual ally in Peter Mills, a fiscal conservative but a civil libertarian. Mills was an angry man in 1969, because a year earlier he had attended a panel in Portland and was told that the new conductor of the Portland Symphony Orchestra had just been turned away from the Cumberland Club because he was a Jew.

“When I was driving home to Farmington that night,” Mills recalled, “this information bothered me terribly. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought it was a disgrace that the state of Maine could tolerate such a situation where a person could be barred because of race, religion or color.”

Claiming that “southwestern Maine is rife with the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant concept of supremacy,” Mills went after not only hotels and resorts but also — especially — the Portland Country Club and the Cumberland Club.

With little opposition, the bill passed the Maine House at the end of May 1969 and was signed into law by Gov. Curtis.

An era that defined the ugly side of an otherwise beautiful state had come to an inglorious end.

Abraham J. Peck teaches in the history department at the University of Southern Maine and is the co-author (with Jean M. Peck) of “Maine’s Jewish Heritage.”


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