Leonard Cummings opens a window in the Abyssinian Meeting House, one of very few Underground Railroad sites known to be standing in Maine. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In the days before the Civil War, the “free states” of the North were no refuge for people escaping slavery.

Mercenary slave catchers put bounties on their heads and pursued them across the Mason-Dixon line, hoping to kidnap them and bring them back to the plantations they’d left behind. The slave catchers could count on help from Northern locals, who, even if they refused to take a share of the bounty, were compelled to assist by the Fugitive Slave Act.

But in those days, a small number of people, Black and white, risked everything to defy the law, helping hide, house and transport escaped slaves to safety in a system known as the Underground Railroad. The center of their activity in Portland was the Abyssinian Meeting House on 73 Newbury St., which was not only the church for the city’s Black community, but also the home of groups like the Portland Union Anti-Slavery Society, providing a stage for leading abolitionist speakers such as Frederick Douglass.

Much of the history of that era has been lost, first through the city’s Great Fire of 1866, and then by decades of the devaluing of non-white people in Maine. Fortunately, a group of dedicated activists bought the Abyssinian in 1998 and has raised and spent $1 million to stabilize, study and restore the building, which had fallen into disrepair. Now it will take another $1 million to fulfill the activists’ vision of a restored meeting house that will be a living monument to the African American cultural heritage in Maine, and to tell the story of the brave conductors of the Underground Railroad.

This is a time for the community to get behind this effort. The coast-to-coast protests of systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer have caused Americans of all races to take a hard look at our history. That’s what is driving the movement to remove statues and memorials to Confederate generals and politicians, and end the romance of the “Lost Cause” myth that was used to promote white supremacy in the Jim Crow South.

These Confederate monuments do not reflect the values of a multiracial democracy, and they should come down. But taking down statues is not enough.

It’s important that we also dedicate monuments that honor the parts of our history that do live up to our highest aspirations.

The Abyssinian is one of very few Underground Railroad sites known to be standing in Maine. People associated with the church, including Rev. Amos Freeman, Charles Eastman, Addison Parsons and Rev. Amos Beman, are among those named in biographies and memoirs as people who helped conduct escaped slaves to freedom. In their time, they were outlaws, but we now recognize them as heroes.

We need to be inspired by their story. Children need to be taught about it in school. We need to hear speakers standing where Frederick Douglass once stood.

We need the Abyssinian because it preserves something we should never forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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