From the mid 19th century onward the neighborhood on Lafayette and Merrill Streets was home to a number of Portland’s black residents. using US Census records we know that some black residents were native to Maine, but many were from Canada, particularly from Nova Scotia. Others came to Portland from Guadaloupe, Jamaica, Cape Verde, West Indies, Portugal, and other states like North Carolina, Virginia, New York, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Using city directories and US Census records we know that some men worked as seaman, waiters, janitors, stewards, cooks, clerks, hotel porters, house painters, and laborers. While many women in the neighborhood stayed home, others worked as laundresses, seamstresses, housekeepers, and elevator operators.
48 Lafayette Street
David Augustus Dickson (1887-1979) came to the United States from Kingston, Jamaica, British West Indies in 1911 and became a naturalized citizen in 1916. His wife, Mary Daly (1890-1981), came to the US in 1914. The couple lived on Lafayette Street for several years before purchasing the home at 48 Lafayette Street in 1927 from Cressey & Allen, David’s employers.
David worked as a shipper (1930), porter (1940) and janitor at Cressey & Allen’s retail music store on Congress Street for many years. He later worked as an elevator operator and janitor at Porteous, Mitchell and Braun Department Store (1941-1943) and as a janitor at Associated Hospital Service of Maine (1950s). Mary worked as a maid and seamstress. In 1950 she was named Maine State Mother of the Year.
The Dicksons raised five children. David and Mary greatly valued education and all of their children went onto higher education. The four eldest, Leon, Audley, David, and Frederick, graduated from Bowdoin College. Leon, Audley and Frederick became medical doctors. Leon graduated from Howard Medical School, Audley graduated from Columbia University School of Optometry, and Frederick became a surgeon after attending the University of Rochester Medical School, but died young in 1957 at age 35. Their brother David received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard, served in World War II, and went onto spend 40 years in academia as a teacher and university president.
Their youngest and only daughter, Lois, was valedictorian of Portland High School in 1950 and class president of Radcliffe College. A few years after her graduation from Radcliffe College she became the vice-president and director of the Washington DC office of the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB). While with the CEEB she designed and implemented the Pell Grant Program. She married Emmett J. Rice, an economist, and had two children E. John Rice Jr. and Susan E. Rice, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. National Security Advisor for President Obama.*
Although David and Mary Dickson moved to 51 Melrose Street in the early 1960s, the Dickson family continued to own the house at 48 Lafayette Street until 1984.
30 Lafayette Street
The dwelling at 30 Lafayette Street appears to have been built for Samuel S. Libby, a blacksmith and machinist, in the late 1870s or early 1880s to replace an earlier dwelling. In 1929 the dwelling was purchased by Jennie McClean.
Jennie McClean (1872-1946) was the daughter of Joseph and Tempe Hill of Gardiner. According to Maine’s Visible Black History, Joseph and his son Robert ran a grocery store in Gardiner for many years. Jennie married Joseph McClean of Augusta in 1899. According to US Census records, Joseph (1871-1945) came to the United States in 1884/5 from Barbados, West Indies. At the time of their marriage Joseph was a cook in a hotel and Jennie worked as a bookkeeper. Jennie and Joseph had two children that survived childhood, Helen and Vivian. When the couple divorced after 1920, Jennie and the girls moved to Portland. According to city directories, Jennie worked as a dress maker. In 1929 she bought 30 Lafayette Street for $3600. Both daughters lived in the house with their mother for a time and worked as elevator operators. Helen worked at Loring Short and Harmon’s book and stationary store at 474 Congress Street and Vivian worked across the street at 477 Congress Street in the Chapman Building.
24 Montreal Street
John W. Gaskill (1850-1904), was born in North Carolina the son of Sylvester and Rebecca Gaskill of New Bern. In 1889 John W. Gaskill (1850-1904) married his wife Charlotte (Lottie) Hill (1864-1922). According to street directories he worked as a mariner, cook, and steward. In the early 20th century he owned two restaurants, one on Commercial Wharf and the other at 232 Federal Street. A few years earlier in 1900 he took out a mortgage for $650 and purchased land and a dwelling on Montreal Street from real estate developer Moses Gould. In 1901 John transferred the deed to his wife Charlotte (Lottie) Gaskill. Charlotte and John had two boys, Walter and John E., and a daughter Viola.
Walter H. Gaskill (1889-1966) served in World War I. Walter and his wife Geneva lived close to his childhood home for many years at 49 Lafayette Street. Geneva worked as an elevator operator in the Chapman Building at 477 Congress Street while Walter worked according to US Census Records and street directories variously as a waiter, an auto mechanic, and in a local laundry.
John E. Gaskill (1892-1991) for many years worked for Central Maine Power Company as a lineman. John and his wife Lulu, like his brother Walter, lived close to his childhood home for many years at 56 Lafayette Street.
Viola Gaskill (1894-1950) worked for many years as an elevator operator in the Chapman Building at 477 Congress Street. She married in 1918 to Manuel Santos, a ship’s steward from Cape Verde. For several years the young couple and their son lived with Viola’s mother on Montreal Street. After Lottie’s death the couple continued to live in the family home.
For more on the role Portland's black residents have contributed to the city, we recommend reading Maine's Visible Black History by H.H. Price and Gerald E. Talbot. It has been an invaluable part of our research on the lives of Munjoy Hill residents.
*Special thanks to David White for his research on Lois Dickinson Rice.