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Searching for Maine in the Nation’s New Attic

February/March 2017 | view this story as a .pdf

Join us on a journey to the National Mall. No waiting in line.

FM17-SmithsonianWe arrive in Washington, D.C. by train. It’s an eight-minute taxi ride from Union Station to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Washington Monument looms to our left. Our cab pulls up to the front door. We join a group of excited children in blue uniforms emblazoned Montessori Magnet School. The line moves incredibly quickly, contrary to all we’d heard. “You should have seen it last week,” our taxi driver says.

When we tried to reserve our free timed passes three months ago, no advance spots were left for the day we were scheduled to arrive. We could have risked trying to get some same-day passes once we got into town, but on any given day we looked at the site, we saw they were sold out by 7 a.m. So on to eBay. The prices went from “$60 for four tickets or best offer.” Some re-sellers were asking as much as $200 for two tickets.

We ended up paying $40 for a pair.

“Our tickets are for 3 p.m., but it’s 1:30,” we say to the lady at the gate. “Is there a place we can wait inside, or can we get some lunch before our time starts?”

“Just follow them,” she says. “Once you’re in, you’re in.”

Hungry, we take the escalator down to the cafeteria, which is divided into three tantalizing food geographies to begin our three-dimensional experience. Should we try “The Creole Coast” (shrimp and grits, catfish, gumbo); “The Agricultural South” (Brunswick stew, chicken and waffles); or “The Western Range?” I see a chef with dreadlocks. I say, “I’m from Maine. If I want to channel that, what should I order?”

A big smile. “Beef brisket sandwich.”

Okay!

The food is wildly delicious. The vibe is upbeat, quietly triumphant, relaxed. We seat ourselves at the family-style table, and everyone makes small talk. A quote from Langston Hughes shimmers on the wall. “They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong.”

According to Gerald E. Talbot and H.H. Price in Maine’s Visible Black History (Tilbury House), Langston Hughes stayed in Maine at Ethel Goode Franklin’s guest house in Ogunquit during the production of one of his plays. “…Most of her guests were blacks.” In Old Orchard Beach, a destination attraction was “110,” for 110 Portland Avenue, which welcomed guests from Duke Ellington to Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen. In Kittery, vacationers loved Rock Rest.

A single woman joins us.

“Where are you from?” we ask.

“California.”

She looks around, taking in the excitement. “Well, it took over 100 years of trying, and they finally got their museum.” 

They.

This reminds us that we all have some work to do.

The Museum’s galleries are deftly organized. Past at the bottom, future at the top. We start at the very beginning, Level C3, three floors below ground level, and see how the Triangle Trade worked, and still works. After all, Portland’s sugar refineries made us the sixth biggest port on the East Coast when people were enslaved.

Was Portland part of that deadly Triangle? Of course it was, and the effects linger, the good with the painful. On the wall of a multimedia exhibit is a quote from William Cowper, 1788:  “I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves…but I must be mumm, for how could we do without sugar or rum?”

The variation of that I heard while growing up and going to Deering High School in Portland was, ‘The South is so backward. We’d have never done anything like that here. And it’s not our problem, being so far north. There are almost no blacks here.’

None that ‘we’ had the eyes to see, anyway. African Americans have contributed so much to the making of everything we think of as American, and always have been a driving part of the making of Maine. The enslaved often weren’t listed on ship manifests. Freed men and Freemen were often not identified by race early on, and so shared invisibility. All Mainers benefited and therefore still benefit today. Maine’s very statehood was born of an ugly compromise that granted our admission to the Union at the cost of unrestricted slavery in Missouri. The KKK thrived here in the 1920s. None of this was taught in the classroom.

As we walk through this magnificent new museum, brilliant in its evolution, another museum starts to take shape in our heads–one that specifically showcases Maine’s history and Maine’s stake in it. Macon Bolling Allen, the first African American lawyer ever to pass the bar exam, lived in Maine. John Russwurm, the third African American ever to graduate from college, went to Bowdoin and was pals with fellow undergrads Longfellow and Hawthorne. He started the first African American newspaper in the United States, in New York. His house is across the street from Cheverus High School. The Abyssinian Church on the East End is of national significance.

Clearly, Portland’s soaring prospects in the 19th century, built and barreled on the rum trade, were built on the backs of enslaved people as the Old Port shot up in the 1850s, and even when we rebuilt it so quickly after the Great Fire in 1866. The slave trade ensured Portland’s glory days.

For a great historical novel featuring a Portlander’s African American point of view, read Pyrrhus Venture by William David Barry and Randolph Dominic.

As we ascend level by level, there are tearful moments of recognition in this cathartic museum, because even as the screens shift with new revelations, the museumgoers themselves are thinking, changing.

We learn that people who threw themselves overboard during the Middle Passage to escape enslavement were said to be “flying home” to the land of their birth.

We are moved by a pair of child-sized shackles next to those of an adult.

When we see a training aircraft used by the Tuskeegee Airmen (above), we are reminded of Eugene Jackson, who died in 2015. Born in Portland, Jackson’s family had been Mainers since the late 1700s. He graduated from Portland High School in 1941.

James Sheppard, 92, a Tuskeegee Airman, grew up in Harlem. He lives in South Portland now.

There are exhibits about W.E.B. Du Bois, who came to Maine many summers to rest and study with fellow members of the Gun and Rod Club (see sidebar). Also up in lights is a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Maine’s Harriet Beecher Stowe (see “Lasting Legacies,” opposite page).

An eight-year-old is looking at an exhibit of three figures, from left to right, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

His mother asks him, “Have you ever heard of these names? Do they teach them in school?”

“No.”

“Well, if you don’t know something, what do you do?”

He pulls a cell phone from his pocket.

His mother catches us watching, and we all smile.

—Colin W. Sargent

Lasting Legacies

When exploring Maine’s black history, one name appears time and time again, an echo. Gerald E. Talbot’s work as an activist, educator, historian, and the first African American member of the Maine House of Representatives has shaped our state’s social landscape for over half a century.

We asked Talbot, 86, and his wife, Anita, what they’d most like to see in the new Smithsonian museum. “As the parents of four daughters, we’d like to visit any exhibit that focuses on the contributions of African American women. In particular, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Harriet E. Wilson. We’d spend time with each of these women individually. We’d also feel proud to see those who played a significant role in the development of our own state: Tate Cummings, Kippy and Harold Richardson, Eugene Jackson, William Burney Sr. and William Burney Jr., and all of the women who were members of the Mister Ray Club in Portland and the Carver Club in Bangor.

“We’d feel forever blessed to see these extraordinary lives recognized. Their sacrifice has been our collective reward.” And after that? “We wouldn’t delay in advocating for so many more to be included.”

We asked their daughter Rachel Talbot Ross, a legislator and representative for Portland, the first thing she’d want to see at the Museum. She is forthright. “Honestly? I’d like to see my father in the Museum. I find it hard to think of anyone else in Maine who’s contributed so much.”

While Maine’s presence in the Museum is profound, it is not yet definitive. Today, we celebrate the people of Maine who have earned their place in its halls and wait in anticipation for the inclusion of many more.

Game Changers

A few days after Macon Bolling Allen passed the Bar exam in Portland, a reporter from The Brunswicker wrote, “We think we have heard of a colored physician somewhere at the South, in New York, probably, but we have never before heard of a colored lawyer in this country” [Maine’s Visible Black History].

As it turns out, the paper’s speculation was spot on. On July 3, 1844, Allen passed an examination that established him as the first African American licensed to practice law in the U.S.

“I can only imagine how difficult that would have been,” says Danielle Conway, who in 2015, over 130 years after Allen’s admission to the Bar, became the first African American dean of UMaine Law School. “Against a backdrop of slavery, against all the symbols of your supposed inferiority, you have to stand up and prove yourself. You’re carrying the weight of your entire race in that moment.” Conway taught at William S. Richardson School of Law in Hawaii before trading palm trees for pine trees. The Philadelphia native is enthusiastic on the subject of Macon Bolling Allen and the historical ties that unite them across time. As America’s first black lawyer, first black justice of the peace, and the cofounder of the country’s first black law practice, Allen carved inroads into a historically elite practice into which, many decades later, Conway is making her own mark.

“It makes me feel connected to Maine in a fundamental way,” Conway says. Her eyes light up. “You know what else? I graduated from Howard University in Washington D.C., which was actually founded by Oliver Otis Howard. He was a Civil War General from Leeds, Maine.” President Andrew Johnson appointed Howard Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865. His name can be found in the Museum archives. “The school was steeped in history. It really aimed to imbue us with pride in the black genealogy of the law.”

Conway was first introduced to Allen’s legacy through the work of her professor, J. Clay Smith. In the first page of Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer 1844-1944, Clay writes that Allen “presented the first challenge to America’s legal community […] at a period when most black people were constitutionally enslaved.”

Those first pioneering steps into the whitewashed world of law were a laborious uphill struggle. Allen was initially denied admission to the bar in Maine at a time when “anyone of good moral character” was eligible because, as an African American, he was not legally a U.S. citizen. Local abolitionist and Allen’s tutor Samuel Fessenden used his influence to persuade the committee of the Cumberland Bar for an admission by examination. Nonetheless, Allen struggled to find clients in Maine and was forced to Massachusetts in 1845 in search of work. Allen, unable to afford transportation, walked 50 miles to his Massachusetts Bar exam and still passed, according to historian Stephen Kendrick.

Conway finds a synchronicity in becoming the first African American (and only the second female) dean of UMaine Law in the same city where Macon Bolling Allen made history. An expert in government procurement and intellectual property law, an Army veteran, and a professor, Conway’s rise to the top has been meteoric in comparison to Allen’s excruciating struggle against a tide of prejudice.

“The people who have preceded me have reaffirmed my place in the world,” she says. “Taking this job, I was presented with people who had reservations about me teaching here as a black woman. But diversity is such a fundamental component of productivity, and I believe that law is the ultimate tool in the pursuit of freedom and justice.”

From law to literature, Maine’s place in the annals of black history is often surprising and unexpected–and sometimes only discovered long after the fact.

Underground Railroad

If walls could talk, those of the Stowe House on 63 Federal Street, Brunswick, would surely tell a colorful tale. Many famous guests have known its rooms, from writer Harriet Beecher Stowe–for whom the house is named, to a young Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and even honeymooners Bette Davis and Gary Merrill. Perhaps the most intriguing visitor of all spent only one night here, and most likely slept in a cupboard.

In the late months of 1850, John Andrew Jackson, fleeing enslavement in South Carolina, arrived at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s door under cover of darkness.

“We have a letter sent from Stowe to her sister that proves Jackson took refuge in her home in Brunswick that night,” says Tess Chakkalakal, Professor of Africana Studies and English at Bowdoin, who spent 2008-2016 working to restore the house and establish its place on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

“To me, the house is so important because it was here that Stowe really proved what kind of woman she was,” she says. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, also known as the Bloodhound Law, had passed only weeks before. Anyone caught assisting an enslaved fugitive could face six months in jail. “The risk of what Stowe did was not just legal,” says Chakkalakal. “She also harbored a stranger, a man, in the home where she lived with just her children [Stowe’s husband was not yet living in Brunswick]. She took him in, examined the whip marks on his back, and gave him five dollars and a letter of introduction for his arrival in Canada. He played and sang to her young children. Their interaction showed an exchange between equals.”

Undoubtedly, the encounter with Jackson, coming face-to-face with the scars and stories etched by enslavement, had a profound effect on Stowe. Just a few months later, she would pen the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the anti-slavery story that would become the best-selling book of the 19th century, second only to the Bible.

Jackson successfully escaped through Maine into New Brunswick, Canada and from there on to London, England, where he established himself as a lecturer and writer. Given her later success, Stowe’s letter of introduction helped open doors internationally. In the foreword to his powerful memoir, The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina, Jackson writes:

“During my flight from Salem to Canada, I met with a very sincere friend and helper, who gave a refuge during the night. Her name was Mrs. Beecher Stowe […] she listened with great interest to my story.”

“This is one of the only instances where an example of the Underground Railroad is corroborated by both parties: Jackson in his book and Stowe in her letters to her sister,” says Chakkalakal. The evidence enabled Chakkalakal and a team of researchers to get the Harriet Beecher Stowe house listed on the National Underground Railroad Network.

Today, next to a cramped cupboard in the kitchen, a small plaque hangs in testament to a night in 1850 when two writers met in secret, quietly altering the course of each other’s lives. n

By Sarah Moore

We are curating an online resource based around the African American experience in Maine, starting with a collection of Portland Monthly stories from over the years. We welcome your ideas, input, and information to help develop this online museum. Please email staff@portlandmonthly.com.

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