Rick Irons, left, talks to his son as they clean up after a day of work at the Abyssinian Meeting House on Thursday in Portland. Irons, who runs his own general contracting and restoration company, has been working to restore and fix the brickwork at the historic landmark for about a month. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Leonard Cummings had hoped that recent Black Lives Matter marches would draw attention to the 25-year struggle to restore the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland’s East End neighborhood.

As a founder of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, Cummings wanted to make sure local protesters, enraged by the killings of Black people by police in other states, recognized that the historic former church building was the birthplace of the fight against racism in Maine.

Leonard Cummings, 85, a founder of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, looks out of a window inside of the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland last month. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“People need to understand the importance of this building to the African American community,” Cummings told the Maine Sunday Telegram in a June 21 story. “Because until you know your history, you can’t know where you’re heading. This building is the beginning of that story.”

A month later, Cummings and other committee members have been surprised and gratified by the outpouring of support for the restoration project. The Abyssinian also was featured during Portland’s Juneteenth protest march on June 19 that commemorated the emancipation of African Americans from slavery.

In the last four weeks, the restoration group has received an estimated $40,000 in donations through its website and Facebook page, Cummings said. Some contributions have been mailed to the registered nonprofit at P.O. Box 11064, Portland, ME 04104. Contributions ranging from $10 to more than $1,000 continue to roll in.

“It’s a shock, really, to think of the interest that has been created by Black Lives Matter and to be included in that,” said Cummings, who is 85. “Most of that was because of the newspaper article. It was a blessing.”

That’s an extraordinary amount of money in such a short period of time, Cummings said. It will help pay for the ongoing restoration of doors and windows in the meetinghouse, as well as the recent replacement of a sill beam that was destroyed by insects.

The committee also was notified last week that it will receive a $20,000 grant from the Belvedere Historic Preservation Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, Cummings said.

Rick Irons holds up an unwashed original brick at the Abyssinian Meeting House on Thursday in Portland. Irons, who runs his own general contracting and restoration company, has been working to restore and fix the brickwork at the historic landmark for about a month. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In addition, several local contractors, developers and preservation advocates have contacted Cummings to learn how they can help finish the restoration project, which has cost about $1 million so far and is expected to cost another $1 million before it’s done.

“I’m glad people have stepped up, but more people need to step up,” said Tim Wilson, 79, a civil rights leader who is a member of the restoration committee. “The indigenous Black people of Portland have been working for more than 20 years to raise money and finish this important building. It should be done so Lenny can see it done.”

The committee has set a goal to finish the restoration in time to celebrate the building’s 200th anniversary, which is coming soon.

Built in 1828, the Abyssinian is the nation’s third-oldest meetinghouse constructed by a Black congregation, after churches in Boston and Nantucket. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as a northern hub of the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement. In 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Abyssinian as one of the most endangered historic places in the United States.

Six free Black men organized to buy the property on Newbury Street and build their own church after being relegated to the back pews and balconies of white churches. The Abyssinian was the center of religious and cultural life in Portland’s African American community until the sinking of the SS Portland in 1898 killed 19 church members.

The stunning timber-frame building was later sold and converted into a low-budget tenement that fell into disrepair and tax delinquency. The city sold it to the restoration committee for $250 in 1998. Since then, the nonprofit group has worked to raise money, study and restore the building from its brick-and-mortar basement to its hand-hewn roof beams.

Recent projects include the restoration of the main floor and construction of two circular stairways, which lead to two ground-level doorways that are being restored to the building’s facade this summer. Future projects include the installation of windows, doors, a meeting room, bookstore and office space, sewer and water service and bathrooms.

“Once we get bathrooms in, we can open to the public,” Cummings said.

Cummings said the restoration committee hopes to keep the momentum going and retain current interest in the Abyssinian. As donations continue to come in, committee members are sending out thank you notes acknowledging each gift.

“All I can do is say thank you,” Cummings said.

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