Looking Back…Looking Ahead

January 26, 2020 — Rev. Paula Norbert


I imagine that almost everyone knows that this year Maine marks the bicentennial of its statehood in 1820.   As we gather today, we are mindful of the contributions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and so many other men and women who courageously led the Civil Rights movement through the decades and especially during the pivotal years of the 1960’s.  Some have a living memory of how that unfolded; others have studied it.  In recent years, there has been a genuine effort to remember the important gains that were won while also being aware of the important work that still continues and sadly is still needed  to ensure voters’ rights, to guarantee people equal access and to see that criminal justice reforms are put in place so that a disproportionate number of people of color do not continue to be incarcerated.  We have watched with pain the shootings of young black men and we have listened to the increased anti-semitic and racist rhetoric that continues to divide our nation and cause fear in too many communities.  There is still much work to be done, as we are all well aware.  Let us pray, O God, we do believe that all men and women are created in your image and that you call us to treat one another with respect, with dignity, and to continue to work for justice for all.  Be with us now and each day as we seek opportunities to live out your call in our world.  Amen.

I thought in this historic year, I would speak briefly about a history of blacks in our state, a state that is among the least racially diverse in the nation.  The Maine Historical Society shares this about this important history….                   

African-Americans have been in Maine, albeit in relatively small numbers for quite a long time. Some of the earliest evidence of African-Americans in the state are receipts for purchase or sale of slaves. Slavery was infrequent in colonial Maine and outlawed by Massachusetts, and hence in its District of Maine, after the American Revolution.

Free blacks also settled in Maine and came to Maine during colonial days. Many arrived as seamen, working on ships that came into Portland and other ports, and as stevedores along the waterfront. As with other immigrant populations, blacks came to Maine from a variety of places and for a variety of reasons. They worked on the waterfront, had their own small businesses, worked for railroads, were teamsters or drivers, worked in service occupations, public accommodations, or restaurants. Some blacks were laborers, woodsmen, or firefighters.

The historian Randall Stakeman estimates that in 1850, more than half of the black working men in the state were in maritime related trades – fishing, shipwrights, stewards, stevedores. By the end of the 19th century, many more occupations were represented. In 1900, Portland’s black population was nearly 291, down from 334 in 1870. About 200 blacks lived in Bangor in 1900, up from 84 in 1870. The two communities had the largest black populations in the state in 1900. But blacks lived in and have been integral to many Maine cities and towns, even though their numbers were few.

The Portland black community was large enough in the early 19th century to support a separate church, the Abyssinian Congregational Church that was founded in 1827.  In the recent decades, there has been an effort to restore and remember this community which was housed on Newbury Street in Portland.  The Abyssinian Meetinghouse was a vibrant center of religious and educational life for African-Americans at that time.  Preservationists believe that it is the nation’s third-oldest surviving structure built as a black meetinghouse and that it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

“African-Americans have always been an active people but almost with an invisible history here,” said Herb Adams, a state representative from Portland who has written books about Maine’s black history.

In 1826, a group of African-Americans protested the fact that the 600-member black population was often consigned to the balconies in the city’s churches, which were all predominantly white. A year later, one of the men, Reuben Ruby, bought a small tract of land in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood, the heart of the black community, for $250.  The meetinghouse was built there the next year with money raised entirely from African-Americans. It opened in 1828 and, at first without affiliation, became the Fourth Congregational Church in 1833.

The Abyssinian used its downstairs space for classrooms, and housed one of the country’s few taxpayer-financed segregated schools. The congregation also made use of a spring running beneath the building to sell water.

The building was also one of the few to survive a fire that engulfed Portland in July 1866. According to a report commissioned by the current project’s architect, the building was largely saved by the efforts of Mr. Ruby’s son, a firefighter who enveloped the building’s wooden roof in wet blankets.

But congregants began trickling away to other black churches, and after 19 members were killed in a boating accident in 1898, the Abyssinian never fully recovered. It dissolved in 1914. (From In Maine, Restoring History Long Hidden In Maine, Restoring History Long Hidden  By Katie Zezima, New York Times)

In 1877, former slave, orator and writer Frederick Douglass, who had spent most of his life fighting for the abolition of slavery and for human rights, traveled through New England on a speaking tour.  He was invited by veterans of the First Maine Cavalry, a famous Civil War unit, to join them at their annual reunion in 1877 at Old Orchard Beach.  He noted that it was a sign of great progress in race relations that he had enjoyed “a game of croquet with ladies and gentlemen of a different race right out in front of the hotel.”  Douglass would return to Maine on at least three more occasions throughout his career, including a speech at Bates College in Lewiston as part of a larger college lecture tour in 1873.

Maine boasted the nation’s first African-American Roman Catholic Bishop, James A. Healy (1830-1900). A native of Georgia, Healy attended seminary in Canada and France. His father was from Ireland, his mother of mixed race. Healy, like many of the Catholics he led, faced discrimination in Maine.  While he spent much of his career in Boston, Healey came to Maine in 1875 to serve as Bishop of the Diocese of Portland, a post he held until 1900.

And, I wonder how many of you know that Martin Luther King visited Biddeford in 1964 to speak at a Symposium on Civil Rights?  In an article from the Bangor Daily News, writer Seth Koenig described his visit:

(By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff • December 24, 2013)

According to media reports from the time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a packed Biddeford gymnasium that “the most potent weapon for the oppressed is nonviolent action.”  “We must get rid of the idea of superior and inferior races,” he told his first Maine audience. “There is no evidence of any race being superior, yet in spite of this, the idea still exists. Certain people even use the Bible to justify this idea.  The Negro must work hard to solve this problem,” King went on. “Nonviolence through the courts and Legislature are the methods to be used. More may have to suffer, be jailed, lose jobs, endure physical violence, even death before we reach our goal.”

His remarks, delivered as part of a historic — but often forgotten — address at what was then St. Francis College, came on May 7, 1964, about eight months after his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and less than five months before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

During his visit, King reminded Mainers that — although they were geographically distanced from such turmoil as the riots over racial integration of southern universities in the early ’60s — they couldn’t ignore racism and segregation.  “Segregation is on its death bed,” King told the St. Francis audience. “It is still here, though, and it is hidden in the North. If democracy is to live, segregation must die.”  King’s Biddeford appearance occurred nearly four years before he was tragically assassinated by a gunman in Memphis, Tenn. You may know that the University of New England took shape over 40 years ago out of the merger of St. Francis College with the then newly formed New England College of Osteopathic Medicine.

When they first reached out to invite Dr. King,  DeTurk said, “We got the telephone number from information,” . “So I was on the telephone waiting, and the next thing I heard was that voice — that is memorable. That deep voice, ‘Hello, this is Dr. King.’ At which point, I think I was thunderstruck and speechless.

“I then explained to him what we were doing and what we were putting together and … asked him if he would be willing or interested in coming up and participating in the symposium,” he continued. “There was a pause on his end as he thought about that for a second, and he came back and said, ‘Yes I would — I’ve never spoken in Maine.’”  The 1964 symposium also attracted other nationally known activists such as Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Roy Wilkins, a longtime NAACP leader.

As we know, African-Americans and Africans continued to come to Maine in the 20th and 21st centuries, some immigrants from war-torn countries, others drawn by colleges, the landscape, employment opportunities, and family.

There is still much work to be done.  It’s sad that so much time has passed and yet, there are those who still embrace racist views and the effects of racism continue to be felt throughout our country.  Today, we look to be inspired and to be renewed in our commitment to work for racial justice as we remember Dr. King as well as many courageous men and women, many of whose names we will never know, who have all done their part to  make a difference in insuring that all men and women are not judged by the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.