Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: African-Americans

Then there was the shameful case of Malaga Island, formerly known as Negro Island. (As many as nine islands off the Maine coast have been named Negro, most now whitewashed to Anglo-Saxon names like Curtis, which sits just off tourist-conscious Camden, and which is named after the founder of the ultimate white-bread magazine The Saturday Evening Post.) Blacks had lived in the Casco Bay area for most of the 19th century, and one of their “settlements” in the mid-part of the century was a tiny island just a hundred yards off the Phippsburg peninsula. Soon enough, in the view of the whites, Malaga became “degenerate” and an eyesore (what with colorful mixed marriages, disregard of churches and schools, and the flagrant use of alcohol and tea, never mind that except for race, it resembled any number of poor white fishing communities of cussed Mainers) and not suitable for tourism, which by the turn of the century was in full pursuit of rich New Yorkers and Bostonians. The hubbub grew. Neither nearest town, Phippsburg to the east nor Harpswell to the west, wanted to take responsibility, so the Malaga-ites became wards of the state in 1905. Some white do-gooders started a school. Yet, in 1911, Governor Frederick Plaisted (a Democrat) visited and took public offense (or was he up for re-election?); by 1912 all of Malaga’s buildings were razed, the bodies in the cemetery dug up and re-buried on the mainland, the few remaining living people transported to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, and the island deserted and desolate. It still is, for it is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, with a Cabot and a Rockefeller on its Board, to “preserve its unique history.”
     So the Gilded Age came shamefully apart in Maine. But, perversely, for most of the 19th century Maine could also be proud of its accomplishments on race. John Brown Russwurm, the founder in 1827 of the country’s first black newspaper, New York’s Freedom Journal, was a Bowdoin College graduate (and the third black college graduate in the country). Bates College was founded in 1855 by abolitionists. There were some 70 stations on the Underground Railway in the state. A co-founder of Howard University was Oliver Otis Howard, Bowdoin Class of 1850. It could be said that the Civil War actually started in Brunswick, for Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote most of Uncle Tom’s Cabin there. And in the War itself, Maine sent more men to fight (as a percentage of population) than any other state but Massachusetts.


Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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