The University of Southern Maine announced the creation of a new teaching fellowship on Tuesday that honors the state’s first African-American legislator and is dedicated to examining race in Maine.

The Talbot Fellow recognizes Gerald Talbot, 87, a former state representative and prominent black historian who donated his vast collection of personal papers, photos, posters and other artifacts to the university in 1995. The same year, the university gave Talbot an honorary doctorate and named an auditorium after him.

The university created the position to promote and increase access to the Gerald Talbot and African-American collections that are part of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine at the Glickman Library.

“We are celebrating Jerry Talbot’s life work,” USM President Glenn Cummings said during a reception at the library Tuesday morning.

Cummings recalled Talbot’s record as a civil rights leader for much of the last 60 years. Talbot attended the March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and became president of Portland’s NAACP chapter in 1964, when it was re-established after a five-year hiatus.

Appointed to the governor’s Human Rights Task Force in 1968, Talbot was instrumental in passing the state’s first fair housing and human rights legislation and was elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1972, serving constituents in Portland for three terms.

USM Provost Jeannine Uzzi introduced the first Talbot Fellow, Lance Gibbs, Ph.D., who has been a full-time lecturer on race and ethnicity at USM since 2017. Uzzi said she has wanted to create the fellowship for a while and described Gibbs as “the single most frequent user of the Talbot Collection over the past two years.”

“It is imperative at this moment in the history of USM and the history of Portland that USM begin to lead on matters of equity and social justice,” Uzzi said during the reception. “The Talbot Fellowship is a mark of this leadership. It is an investment in our special collections, in budding new scholars, in areas of research of critical importance to the university and in people who bring new perspectives to USM and to Maine.”

Uzzi said the fellowship is a three-year position that she hopes will be transferred to another USM faculty member or other expert on race relations outside the university. At this time, the fellowship isn’t endowed, she said, but the university is prepared to fund programs that Gibbs develops to promote the Talbot and African American collections.

Gerald Talbot, front right, helps to carry a banner during a protest march through downtown Portland in 1967. Talbot helped to re-establish Portland’s NACCP chapter in 1964 and was its first president. He later became Maine’s first African-American legislator. Portland Press Herald/Gerald Talbot Collection

“I want this to be an ongoing position,” Uzzi said. “I also hope it brings stability to the collections.”

Gibbs, who previously taught at the University of Dayton in Ohio and the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, said he was humbled and touched to be named the first Talbot Fellow.

Gibbs said he sought and won Talbot’s approval for his fellowship goals, which include digitizing the collections to make them accessible to scholars all over the world.

Gerald Talbot looks at a framed photo of himself after receiving it at a ceremony Tuesday at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. The school established a teaching fellowship in Talbot’s honor, dedicated to the study of race in Maine. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

He also wants to introduce portions of the collection into the broader curriculum at USM and in public schools, and to bring scholars from around the country to work on the collections.

Talbot, who recently survived a serious car accident, attended the reception with his wife, Anita, and several family members.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said she and her three sisters “were blessed to have a father who was a history buff” and who created the only comprehensive record of black history in Maine.

Regina Phillips tears up as her father Gerald Talbot, left, Maine’s first African-American legislator, is recognized during a ceremony Tuesday at University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus library. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Ross recalled how her father traveled across the state in a Volkswagen van, displaying favorite pieces of his collection and sharing what he knew about the black experience in Maine and the United States. Talbot understood that many Mainers were unaware that African Americans have deep roots in Maine and that they have faced discrimination here for centuries, she said.

“He’s a proud black man who drew strength from the stories of his people,” she said of her father.

Ross noted that the history of African Americans and other minorities in mostly white Maine still isn’t included “to any measurable extent” in the public school curriculum. Ross said she believes the Talbot Fellowship and its effort to publicize the African American collections at USM will help to change that.

Then maybe one day, she said, every child will know “their story is worth preserving.”

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