When I was in the fourth grade with Mrs. Janas, we had The Maine Unit. If my memory serves me right, this was standard operating procedure for all fourth-graders at our school every year. We learned about the various ecosystems of Maine (and probably learned the word “ecosystem”), we memorized the 16 counties song and we learned lots of Maine history. At least, we learned some Maine history.

I didn’t realize until fairly recently – much more recently than I really want to admit, honestly – that we didn’t learn much about Maine’s Black history.

And that’s not a knock on Mrs. Janas, by the way. She was a wonderful teacher and had to put up with a lot from me, because fourth grade was when my anxiety disorder started manifesting itself more physically, so I constantly had headaches and stomachaches and nobody knew why, so everyone just thought I was a hypochondriac. I would guess that most Mainers didn’t learn much Maine-specific Black history in school. I remember learning about the Civil War and civil rights, and in eighth grade, I won a speech contest with a speech about Lonnie Johnson, a Black engineer who invented the Super Soaker. (He also invented various other things and worked for many years for NASA and the U.S. Air Force, but for a middle schooler, none of that is as cool as the Super Soaker.)

Maine is one of the whitest states in America – depending on the year, we go back and forth with Vermont. That’s all the more reason to make sure we teach the history of Black Mainers.

Maine’s demographics are not an accident. They are the result of hundreds and thousands of choices and events all adding up through history. We are doing a disservice to our Black neighbors and ancestors by erasing them. There might not be many Black Mainers, and there are even fewer Black Mainers who haven’t been asked, “Where are you from?” But there have always been Black people from Maine.

It’s important for white Mainers to learn that lesson young enough to take it to heart. In 1819, at the state of Maine’s founding convention, the white male delegates who set up the state voted overwhelmingly to allow Black men to vote. (Not women, regardless of race. Even for a state whose motto is “I lead,” that was a bit far out for 1819.) One guy, William Vance of Calais, tried to forbid Black men the right to vote. Not only was he massively outnumbered, but his Calais residency was challenged and it turned out he lived outside the town limits. The whole episode really set the tone for the next 200-plus years of Maine politics.

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Besides, Maine’s Black history is just plain interesting.

For example, Lois Dickson Rice, a Black woman born and raised in Portland who had a long career in education with the College Board, was also a lobbyist who became known as the “mother of the Pell Grant,” because of her relentless lobbying for the program’s creation. Pell Grants, for those who might not know, are federal college grants given to low-income students. (If only all lobbyists were so helpful!) I received Pell Grants when I was in college. I suspect quite a few Mainers have over the years. Ms. Rice was named “Most Likely To Succeed” in Portland High’s class of 1950, and the capstone of her career enabled millions of other students to also succeed.

The first Black lawyer admitted to the bar in America, and the first to argue before a jury, was Macon Bolling Allen. In 1844, he moved to Maine to study law with Samuel Fessenden and, on July 3, 1844, was admitted to the Maine bar. He quickly realized he could not sustain a legal practice in Maine because white people didn’t want to hire a Black lawyer. He got his happy ending (a successful, trailblazing career as an attorney and judge), but he had to leave Maine to do it.

Not every story about Maine’s Black history is a good one.

Malaga Island, off Phippsburg, was home to a mixed-race community for about 50 years, from around the 1860s to 1912. In 1912, the state forcibly evicted the residents for no other reason than they were poor, mixed-race, and living on the island that the state felt should be developed for tourism. Many of them were imprisoned at Maine’s “School for the Feeble-Minded.” The state got around to apologizing only in 2010.

If you don’t have a history of your people belonging somewhere, it’s hard to feel at home. I’m glad we had that Maine unit in fourth grade. But going forward into the future, I hope that schools will consider teaching a more complete picture of Maine’s history – one with all its people.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
themainemillennial@gmail.com
Twitter: @mainemillennial


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