Soldiers at Onawa Trestle in the Piscataquis County area known as Morkill, circa 1943.  Photo courtesy of Monson Historical Society

As Asata Radcliffe prepared for the opening of an exhibition about the role and treatment of African American Army soldiers in Maine during World War II, Portland and communities across the country rose up in rage over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black citizens, by police.

The injustice and outrage of 2020 created real-time context for Radcliffe, a writer and filmmaker and an adjunct professor at Maine College of Art, to tell the unlikely stories of these dozens of men who served their country in a segregated Army and came to Maine to protect railroad bridges and stations from terrorist attacks during the war. But then she wondered why she even bothered when,  as she walked down Main Street in Rockland, a white woman screamed at her from the window of her truck, “Go home. We don’t want you here.”

“Why am I doing this?” she asked herself after the racist incident. “What is the purpose? When you are living in a country in 2020 and people are questioning your citizenship still, it takes the wind out of you.”

Guest curator Asata Radcliffe in the gallery at Maine Historical Society. Courtesy of Maine Historical Society

Radcliffe pushed through the emotional turmoil of the summer and completed her work on the exhibition, “A Convenient Soldier: The Black Guards of Maine,” which opened in September at the Maine Historical Society and is on view in person through the end of the year. There’s also an online component through the historical society’s Maine Memory Network.

The exhibition sheds light on what Radcliffe describes as the “conflicted heroism” of the dozens of Black soldiers who were assigned to Maine between 1941 and 1945 to guard important railroad bridges and stations across the state from terrorist attacks. The installation occupies a narrow hallway near the back of the historical society exhibition space, and portrays the lives of these soldiers with photos, text, newspaper clippings, items from the historical society collection and other dramatic elements. Maine College of Art students Isaiah Dennis and William Thompson III also made an animated short film, written and produced by Radcliffe.

The idea of service to country while being mistreated by that country gnawed at Radcliffe throughout her work on this project, and still does. “I am trying to understand what was driving them to this feeling of citizenship and ‘I am going to serve my country even though I am not being treated like a full citizen,’ ” she said in an interview. “I have a lot of questions about that. Maybe it is the hope that if I serve my country, maybe my country will appreciate my contributions or maybe my country will acknowledge me as a full citizen.”

She personalizes the stories by telling viewers the names of the soldiers, their hometowns and small details of their lives and time in Maine. The exhibition focuses on a specific historical moment, and Radcliffe, as guest curator, draws it into the present. In wall text, she writes about being a Black and Indigenous woman “from away” (she is from California) and experiencing isolation during her first winter in Maine, in 2017. It made her wonder about the lives of these men, who were not accustomed to the cold weather and who, despite serving their country, lived in boxcars during harsh, cold conditions. “I know what it is like when the pipes freeze when you are inside the house, let alone in a boxcar,” she said. “How do you go to the bathroom? Were they able to shower? There were not on front lines fighting, but they were still stationed in this country and weren’t taken care of.”

Further, these men had to be careful when they walked into town, a reality that she and other Black and people of color experience in Maine today. “I can imagine the isolation must have been even worse for them in the 1940s as they served in a military that was segregated until 1948,” Radcliffe writes in a curator’s note that is part of the display. “In Maine, the Black Guards slept in boxcars – and then what did they return to at home? Segregation. The KKK. Lynching was a common practice then, especially in the South. It is possible that some of these men joined the military to escape those conditions of white supremacy only to find themselves ostracized and isolated, but still obligated to be of service to this country.”

Soldiers in truck, North Yarmouth, 1942. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society

These men had an odd and important assignment. During World War II, there were fears of attacks along Maine borders and its network of railroads, said historical society curator Tilly Laskey. Army soldiers from a segregated regiment in Massachusetts were sent to places like North Yarmouth, Old Town and up north to Morkill in Piscataquis County, where the assignment was to guard the famous Onawa Trestle that towers 130 feet above the lakes and land.

The soldiers arrived in Yarmouth in 1941 and in Old Town and Morkill the following year. They were treated well in some places and welcomed with homemade pies, and made to feel unwelcome and told to go home in others. In Old Town, John Coghill, owner and editor of the Penobscot Times, used his newspaper to build support for the removal of the troops from town, enlisting the help of former governor and then U.S. Sen. Ralph Brewster, a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.

Radcliffe learned of the Black Guards of Maine during a residency at Monson Arts in 2018. She visited the Monson Historical Society and stumbled upon an essay about the Black Guards, as well as photos of the men. The more she learned, the more interested she became. “I wanted to go down the rabbit hole, so to speak. It was a personal curiosity for me, especially being someone not from Maine and seeing the photos of these soldiers. My dad and all the men in my family all served, and it just made me curious,” she said.

“A Convenient Soldier: The Black Guards of Maine,” presented in a small and purposely cramped exhibition toward the back of the Maine Historical Society galleries, commemorates the Black Guards who stood sentinel at railroad bridges and depots during World War II in Maine. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Maine Historical exhibition is the first of what will likely be other iterations of the project.

“The heart of the story is the stories behind the men,” Radcliffe said. “This is an aspect of the project where I am just scratching the surface. There is more research I’d like to do at the National Archives to find out what it was like on the ground for them, and possibly learn more names of soldiers that I have photos for. I had plans to visit the archives in March, and of course, that’s when everything shut down.”

In addition to the photos and newspaper clippings, Radcliffe reproduced the soldier’s dog tags, created a three-dimensional, sculptural display to suggest the Onawa Trestle, and pulled period items from the historical society collection. Radcliffe said it was important for her to create an immersive feeling with the installation, with many elements. “I do not know a lot about historical societies, other than there are usually just pictures and objects in cases. I didn’t want it to be just a thing where people read panels on the wall and just kept going. I wanted to find a way to pull people into that hallway and keep them there,” she said. “Once you start walking down, you can’t go back.”

At the end of that hallway, subtly displayed behind scrims and lurking in the shadows is a KKK robe from the historical society collection. The robe and all it represents haunt these soldiers and all people who have experienced racism in Maine, past or present. “I’ve met many longtime Mainers who tell me that they never heard of racism here, let alone the Klan. Most tell me they feel Maine has never been racist at all,” Radcliffe said. “Thus, the use of the scrim is to highlight the things people don’t wish to see. It’s uncomfortable to confront because it diminishes the image of Vacationland.”


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