Monday is Juneteenth. While the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Jan. 1, 1863, freeing all enslaved people in America on paper, we all know that paper can’t fight a battle and words don’t do much without follow-up action.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans remained enslaved for the next two and a half years through the Civil War, until June 19, 1865, when the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform Texans that all slaves were free. Juneteenth, which started as a community celebration, has grown over the years – because Americans will take pretty much any excuse to party – and it became an official federal holiday in 2021.

When it comes to slavery, most white Mainers like to think we were one of the “good” states. After all, Maine was in the north. It fought for the Union. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Hannibal Hamlin, so on and forth. But slavery was a national institution. It may have been centered around the South, but, like the storm around a hurricane’s eye radiates outward, so too did the effects of slavery. After all, Maine became an official state as part of the Missouri Compromise, keeping the balance of slave states and free states intact. So from the moment Maine was officially Maine, it was morally compromised on that front.

Massachusetts was the first American state to abolish slavery, which it did in 1783; which meant that, as part of Massachusetts (I know, I hate remembering that too) it was illegal in Maine. Prior to 1783, however, there were hundreds of enslaved people living and laboring in Maine. Maine never had the version of human bondage involving vast agricultural plantations, but people were in slavery here too.

After 1783, our economy of shipbuilding and seafaring certainly kept us plugged into all the economic activity of antebellum America, and slavery was its biggest engine. The beautiful ship captains’ mansions that line the harbors and rivers of Maine, what do you think those captains were paid so handsomely to transport? The crops that filled those Maine-made ships, who tilled those fields? The cotton spun into cloth in our mills, where did it come from?

If you’ve been around southern Maine, you’ll see the name Pepperell everywhere: Pepperell Cove in Kittery, Pepperell Mill in Biddeford. Sir William Pepperrell bought and sold slaves throughout his life, and he made his fortune importing rum from Antigua (rum was made from sugarcane; sugarcane was grown by enslaved people on vast Caribbean plantations).


Or take Nathaniel Gordon, the only person in the history of the United States to be executed for illegal slave trading. He was from Portland, as was his father, and later on, his descendants. On his final voyage, his ship was intercepted by federal authorities with 897 kidnapped Africans on board, half of whom were children. Half. And that particular trip was nothing out of the ordinary for Captain Gordon or for thousands of similar voyages over the 350 years slavery was at least partially legal on American soil. Can you even imagine the scale of that suffering?

Or take the Victoria Mansion, which I definitely thought was named after me when I was a little girl. In addition to being a stunning work of architecture and a carefully preserved museum that shows examples of Victorian-era life and luxury to tens of thousands of visitors each year, it was also very much a product of slavery. Its first owner was named Ruggles Morse, who commissioned its building and funded the sumptuous furnishings with the profits he earned from buying and selling human beings. Originally from Maine, he moved south, owned and operated expensive hotels, serviced in part by people held in permanent bondage, and supplemented that business with a side hustle in buying and selling enslaved people. He took that blood money back north and poured it into the economy here. And as a museum, no longer a private residence, the mansion generates economic activity in Portland; so in a way, the profits of slavery are still paying it forward for Maine.

The first African slaves to be kidnapped to the American colonies arrived in Virginia in 1619. The first Juneteenth was 246 years later, in 1865. That day in Galveston was 158 years ago Monday. If you’re following along with the math, you’ll notice that slavery was legal in America for much longer than it has been abolished. Juneteenth is a hinge in the door of history; the end of one long and bloody struggle and the beginning of another.

If there’s one thing that I can tell you for sure, it’s that you can’t move forward into the future without looking your past in the eye. If you’re celebrating Juneteenth on Monday, have a wonderful day; if you have no celebrations planned, I hope you’ll take a little time to think about Maine’s role in perpetuating America’s original sin of slavery, and what role Maine can play in the ongoing reckoning with that history.

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

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