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Living In Portland

The Abyssinian Meetinghouse and Portland's African-American History

Maine may have the dubious distinction of being the least racially diverse state in the nation, but that factoid obscures the real diversity to be found in Maine communities like Portland, and does a disservice to the very real contributions that minorities have made to our city and state.

As a seaport, Portland has attracted international immigration for centuries. Although some of Portland's earliest African Americans arrived here as slaves (Maine was a part of Massachusetts, which didn't outlaw slavery until 1783), many came here of their own free will, as mariners who settled down after voyages from homes in the West Indies and Africa.

Though freedom for blacks may have been common in colonial Portland, racism was also common. In the early nineteenth century, the city's African American citizens wrote a letter to the city's clergy to complain that they felt unwelcome in local churches, and that they would therefore form their own congregation. In 1828, they consecrated the Abyssinian Meetinghouse, which stands to this day on Newbury Street at the base of Munjoy Hill.

For decades, the Abyssinian was a community center for Portland's African American citizens. In addition to hosting worship services, it was also a school, a stop on the underground railroad (with convenient access to Canadian-bound ships in the harbor), and a lecture hall for famous abolitionist speakers like Frederick Douglass.

Today, the Abyssinian is still standing, the third-oldest African-American meetinghouse building in the entire nation. As was one of the only structures in the city to have survived the great fire of 1866, and as a crucial incubator for Maine's abolitionist movement, it is easily one of Portland's most valuable historic sites.

Still, after its congregation dissolved at the end of the 1800s, the building was turned into a tenement house, and was nearly lost altogether to abandonment by the end of the 20th century. That's when a band of concerned citizens — some of them descendants of the Abyssinian's congregants — formed the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, which has been raising funds for a complex and delicate building restoration effort that was profiled a few years ago in the New York Times.

My wife happens to be one of the preservation carpenters who's been able to work on the project (the most recent phase of reconstruction restored a new reproduction of the historic facade, completed last winter). You can read a lot more about the restoration process on her company's blog, which she happens to write.

Another recent effort to illuminate Portland's African American history comes from the new Portland Freedom Trail, a series of markers scattered around downtown sites to call attention to prominent leaders, sites, and events in Portland's underground railroad and abolitionist movement.

The plaques, which were installed in 2007, blend mundane details of nineteenth-century life with the amazing drama of slavery and freedom in the years before the Civil War. The First Parish Unitarian Church at the head of Union Street, for instance, is a quiet and stately building today, but its Freedom Trail plaque tells of the time, in 1832, when 2,000 people convened there to hear William Lloyd Garrison speak, and of a pro-slavery riot that occurred there a decade later when another abolitionist denounced New England's role in perpetuating and profiting from southern slavery.

You can find many more amazing stories on the Portland Freedom Trail's self-guided walking tour brochure.

Top image: at the opening of the Portland Freedom Trail. Photo by Ramona du Houx, from the Maine Democrat magazine.

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