Detail of a Portland Freedom Trail marker at 53 India St., where Elias and Elizabeth Widgery Thomas lived and provided a safe house for fugitive slaves and provided housing for notable abolitionists. The home was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1866. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Three months before racial-justice protesters filled the streets of Portland, the Maine Historical Society prepared an exhibition about statehood with a large section about the Black experience in Maine, beginning in the 1600s.

“State of Mind: Becoming Maine” finally opened last week, offering timely historical context for the Black Lives Matter movement as part of a larger bicentennial narrative. The exhibition acts as a complement to other permanent displays at sites in southern Maine, the Portland Freedom Trail and the Malaga Island preserve and memorial, which help bring some of the same stories to life.

The Portland Freedom Trail offers a firsthand look at some of the sites explored in the Maine Historical exhibition through a self-guided walking tour. The trail consists of a system of granite-and-bronze markers highlighting the people, places and events associated with the antislavery movement in Portland, with a dozen stops on a walk that begins on the waterfront, winds through the East End by India Street to the Abyssinian Meeting House and Eastern Cemetery, and then down Congress Street to First Parish Church and back to the waterfront. Depending on your pace, you can walk it in an hour.

A woman walks past a Portland Freedom Trail marker at Lincoln Park at the corner of Pearl and Federal streets, where Friends (Quaker) Meeting House once stood. The Maine antislavery movement started at the meeting house with a speech given by famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in 1832. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Some of the markers refer to sites that no longer exist – the secondhand clothing store of Lloyd Scott, which was near the bottom of Exchange Street, near Fore. Many secondhand dealers kept warm clothes for fugitives, who were leaving slavery in the South and coming to the cold northern climate for the first time. Other sites on the trail do exist, including the Mariners’ Church, where the basement housed the antislavery bookstore and print shop of Daniel Colesworthy, who in 1836 printed the book “Light and Truth from Ancient and Sacred History.” It was written by Robert Benjamin Lewis, a Black writer, and was the first Afro-centric history of the world.

At a time when the United States is reconsidering how history is told, the Portland Freedom Trail reminds us that people in Portland were trying to tell another narrative for many, many years. Similarly, the exhibition at Maine Historical reminds us that history is always worth a close re-examination. One of the surprises of the exhibition may be how prevalent slavery was in Maine.

“Because Maine has this abolitionist history, people assume there was never slavery in Maine. There was not as much as in the Southern states, but there certainly was slavery in Maine – Native American slaves and Black slaves,” said exhibition curator Tilly Laskey. “We have more material than I would like to tell this story – slave receipts and manifestos from slaving ships. Those will be on display. So much of the history of coastal Maine is built on the backs of brown and Black people.”

In addition to owning slaves, many Maine businessmen, including Maine’s first governor, William King, made their wealth based, at least in part, on the slave trade, Laskey said. “Even though he was not directly involved with slave-trading people, he was profiting off of it in big ways,” she said. The most famous, or notorious, slave trader was William Pepperell of Kittery, who bought and sold slaves throughout his life. Slaves were documented in York and Kittery from the mid-1600s.

“State of Mind: Becoming Maine” isn’t only about the Black experience. Indeed, the premise of the exhibition is to highlight the four communities of Wabanaki, Black and African American, Acadian French and English-speaking people while exploring how those histories relate to each other, Laskey said.

One of William Pepperell’s bills of sale involving a slave, on view at Maine Historical Society. Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of MaineMemory.net, item #7372

The exhibition was set to open March 12, the day that Maine confirmed its first case of COVID-19. Maine Historical canceled the opening, and the exhibition has sat dormant, waiting for an audience. It’s on view in the gallery into early 2021 with all the usual pandemic precautions in place. Admission is through timed ticketing, available in advance online and by phone, as well as in person. Maine Historical is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday. Face masks and social distancing are required.

Daniel Minter’s 2019 mixed-media painting, “The Governor’s Tea,” about Malaga Island, is part of a new exhibition at Maine Historical Society. Courtesy of Daniel Minter

 

Laskey consulted with longtime journalist and historian Bob Greene on aspects of the exhibition dealing with Black history. In a narrative for the exhibition, Greene writes that jobs – “a small four-letter word” – were the reason Black people came to Maine. Black labor was prominent on the docks of Portland when Maine became a state. Of the 359 Black men in the 1850 census of Maine, 194 worked on or near the water, Greene said. Most of those men were employed as mariners, sailors, fishermen and the like. The Black population of Maine declined until World War II, when workers were needed in the shipyards and the Black population surged again. Today’s surge of people of color to Maine also is because of jobs, and the opportunity for a better life, Greene said.

Included in the exhibition are images of the steamship Portland, which was built in Bath in 1889 and sank nine years later during a November run from Boston to Portland. All aboard died, a human toll estimated at 190. Of those, 17 were members of Portland’s Black community. The images are used to illustrate the Black workforce in Maine.

“State of Mind: Becoming Maine” also documents efforts in Maine to abolish slavery. The antislavery movement began after statehood, in 1833, with the formation of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society, which included Black and white members and men and women, “unusual for the period,” Laskey said. They were committed to convincing slaveholders that slavery was sinful, and they became divisive, she said, because Maine’s economy relied on the slave trade, and the mills of Biddeford, Saco, Lewiston and Waterville bought cotton grown by Southern slaves.

The exhibition includes the group’s constitution, which proclaims the society will “encourage & promote the intellectual, moral & religious improvement of the free people of color, & by correcting prevailing & wicked prejudices, endeavor to obtain for them, as well as the enslaved, an equality with the whites in civil, intellectual & religious privileges; but will never countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by physical force.”

There’s a small section on the Abyssinian Meeting House on Munjoy Hill, including its articles of creation from 1835 “for the purpose of organizing a Church among the people of Coulour of this City.” The Abyssinian roots go back at least to 1826, when a half-dozen men published a letter in the Eastern Argus complaining about attempts to segregate Blacks at the Second Congregational Church. Two years later, they and others petitioned the Legislature to form the Abyssinian Religious Society. In 1831, church founder Reuben Ruby sold land on Newbury Street to build the Abyssinian Meeting House, the first Black church in Maine and the third-oldest African-American meeting house in the United States. It is currently undergoing long-term restoration.

The Abyssinian also served as a school, a center of community gatherings and a safe haven on the Underground Railroad. Church members concealed, supplied and transported escaped slaves, before during and after the Civil War, Laskey said.

Finally, the exhibition also includes contemporary art by Portland artist Daniel Minter, whose painting, “The Governor’s Tea,” addresses Malaga Island as a subject. Malaga, a 42-acre island in the New Meadows River in Phippsburg, was home to a mixed-race community from the middle 1800s. In the early 1900s, Phippsburg was becoming a tourist destination and the island residents were thought to reflect badly on Maine, because of the color of their skin. In 1912, the state ordered all island residents to vacate their homes and leave the island. Their dead were exhumed, their houses removed.

Minter, co-founder of Indigo Arts Alliance and instrumental in establishing the Portland Freedom Trail, presents three Black figures standing in water, with images of broken cups and buttons, unearthed during archaeological digs at the island, surrounding them. The island is portrayed in the background with the color of fire and with lightning filling the sky. Painted on wood and canvas, the painting is framed in wood, like a box, and divided into sections.

Today, the island is owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust and is open to visitors, but accessible only by private boat. The island itself is about an hour north of Portland by car, then a short boat ride from a public landing in Harpswell or Brunswick. There’s a small hiking trail, and numbered posts mark the sites of homes razed in 1912.

A memorial at Pineland Cemetery in New Gloucester was dedicated in 2017 in memory of the people who lived on Malaga Island. The island off the coast of Phippsburg was home to an intentional interracial community in the years following the Civil War. Beginning in 1911, the state began forcefully evicting residents from the island, and by 1912 the approximately 40-member community had been entirely removed, including graves that were exhumed and buried at Pineland Cemetery. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

More convenient is a relatively new Malaga memorial at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. When the dead were exhumed from Malaga, they were reburied at Pineland. In addition, several residents of Malaga were forced to live at the school for the “feeble-minded” at Pineland. The memorial was dedicated almost exactly three years ago, in 2017, and stands as a reminder of what many consider Maine’s most egregious act of racial intolerance. At the time of the dedication, then-Gov. Paul LePage told the gathering, “The creation of this memorial is way, way long overdue. … And this memorial today only begins to make the healing of that terrible, terrible time.”

Another simpler granite marker, installed in 1912 and flecked with lichen, stands nearby. It tells the facts: “The people of Malaga Island, New Meadows River, Maine, were relocated. The people buried on the island were moved to Pineland’s cemetery.”

And with a simple picture, it also tells the story. Above those words, carved into the granite, is an empty rowboat adrift at sea, one oar resting on the seats, the other on the floorboards underneath.

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