By Chloe Martin & Julie Larry
Portland’s Black Communities have been shaping the city’s history, landscapes, and architecture since the city’s founding. As a major port city, Portland was both a stop on the Underground Railroad and home to a thriving community of free black people who worked the waterfront or for the commercial railroads. A few of the buildings that tell their stories remain standing, primarily in the India Street Neighborhood which was founded by free African-Americans who prospered in Portland’s maritime economy. Those buildings are featured below.
The writing about these historic places is based on information from the following publications. Please check out these valuable resources for more in depth reading:
Maine’s Visible Black History:The First Chronicle of Its People By H.H. Price and Gerald E. Talbot
For even further reading:
Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster
In September of 2017 19th Century African-American Resources was add to Greater Portland Landmarks' Places in Peril list. Surviving historic resources and buildings tell the story of the African American citizens that contributed to Portland’s robust history. Three areas on the City’s peninsula were historically home to Portland’s black residents: Newbury Street near the Abyssinian Meeting House, Lafayette Street on Munjoy Hill near Mansfield’s Livery Stable and in the St. John-Valley Street neighborhood in close proximity to Union Station, a major employer to many of the neighborhood’s African American families. All three areas historically associated with Portland’s African American community are either rapidly redeveloping or ripe for redevelopment. In preservation efforts to date, these modest dwellings and institutional buildings associated with Portland’s black history have largely been overshadowed by larger, more elaborate buildings.
The Abyssinian Meeting House, 73 Newbury Street, (1828): Built in 1828 as a house of worship, the Abyssinian Meeting House is the third oldest standing African- American meeting house in the United States, and is of local, state and national historic significance. The Abyssinian became the center of social and political life for Portland’s African-American community in the 19th century. When the Great Fire was tearing through the city, the community that relied on the Abyssinian rallied together to cover the roof in wet blankets and successfully save it from the blaze. The building served as a church and a segregated public school, as well as a hall for concerts, dinners and entertainment. Its members and preachers included former enslaved people, leaders of the Underground Railroad movement, and outspoken advocates for the abolition of slavery in the United States. The Meeting House was closed in 1917, converted to tenement apartments in 1924, and finally, abandoned and taken over by the City of Portland for back taxes. In 1998, the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian bought the property and began its restoration. The committee continues to make progress on the restoration as well as raising awareness of this nationally significant building. For more information or to get involved, visit their website and get in touch with the committee. For Landmarks view of the Abyssinian click here.
The Abraham Niles House, 77 Newbury Street (c. 1840): Built next to the Abyssinian Meeting house, the Abraham Niles House is also a survivor of the Great Fire. Abraham Niles was a mariner and early member of the church next door. The Niles family lived in the house until the end of the 19th Century.
The North School, 248 Congress Street (1867): After the Great Fire of 1866, the North School was built to educate all neighborhood children, including the large population of black children living in the India Street neighborhood and on Munjoy Hill. While many of the teachers at the North School were descendants of Irish immigrants, Portland’s first black school teacher purportedly taught at the North School, too.
Click for more info on Portland's Historic Schools.
Reuben Ruby House, 81 Newbury Street (c. 1853-56): This building has been altered, losing many if its historic features, but not its historic significance. One of the first occupants was Reuben Ruby, founder of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. Born in Gray, Maine he was the foremost Underground Railroad Conductor in Portland and worked on significant anti-slavery publications in Boston and Maine. He had a successful hack stand, the former location of which is marked on the Portland Freedom Trail. He purchased and donated the land for the Abyssinian Meeting House as well as funded its construction. His son, William Wilberforce Ruby, was the fireman who first alerted the city to the start of the Great Fire of 1866 and led his community to protect the Abyssinan’s roof during the fire. For more information on William Wilberforce Ruby, read the Portland Press Herald article on the Great Fire.
Eastern Cemetery 224 Congress (1668): Some of the Ruby Family are buried in Eastern Cemetery. This cemetery is the final resting place for many of Portland’s earliest African Americans. Near the fence on Mountfort St. there is a section of the cemetery that was originally designated for black people. In the first half of the 19th C. many prominent people of Portland’s Anti-Slavery movement, black and white, were buried in this cemetery. For more information on their lives read the Portland Freedom Trail or get in touch with Spirits Alive, the friends group that researches, restores, and advocates for Eastern Cemetery.
John and Mary Parrs House, 16 Federal Street (1870): While this house has been altered several times, most recently in 2015-16, the original structure was built in 1870. The Parrs family reflects the different work histories of African-American families in Portland. John Parrs was the owner of several buildings in the India Street Neighborhood and a mariner. His son, Braxton was a mariner and later, a postal worker. His daughter-in-law, Amelia, was a seasonal cook in Old Orchard Beach and one of the longest residents of the Parrs House. She was originally from Georgia and has an unclear family lineage, perhaps born into slavery.
The Valley Street neighborhood: In addition to the India Street Neighborhood, The Valley Street area was home to a significant portion of Portland’s black community. Many in the neighborhood worked at Union Station (1888-1961) or on the Maine Central Railroad. They worked as porters, cooks, and dining waiters on the passenger trains, as waiters, matrons, Red Caps, and bootblacks in the station, or as track and transit men on the cargo trains. Many of the existing homes on Valley and A Street were occupied by Portland’s black families. Maine’s Visible Black History provides more information on the history of the Valley Street neighborhood. The book features the Cummings Family who lived in this neighborhood and was known for, among other things, their long and successful careers with the railroad, starting with three brothers at the turn of the century, Eddie, Tate, and Leslie Cummings. Their children and grandchildren continue to be prominent in Maine as leaders in politics, civil rights, and advocacy for black history landmarks, including the Abyssinian Meeting House.
Mariner’s Church, 336-348 Fore St (1828): This large and beautiful building that survived the Great Fire of 1866 at the center of Portland’s Old Port focused their ministry on the people that worked all around it. The basement was a notable anti-slavery bookstore and printing press. One of their most significant publications was, Light and Truth, From Ancient and Sacred History, by Robert Benjamin Lewis. In this book Lewis wrote an Afro-centric history of the world that was based in theology texts. He was also an inventor, holding three U.S. Patents, one known as the “hair picker” that was used in shipyards all over Maine. Maine’s Visible Black History features the personal and professional story of Lewis.