June 21, 2013

The Abyssinian Meeting House: Maine's Untold African American Heritage

Editor's note: In March 2022, the Abyssinian Meeting House received $1.7 million in federal funding, as part of the omnibus funding package passed by Congress. This incredible funding will allow the committee that has been fighting for 25 years for this site to complete not only the interior preservation work but also install community spaces for learning and programming.

150 years ago, ships anchored and runaway enslaved people hurriedly disembarked on the Maine State Pier. They covertly walked up India Street onto Newbury Street to the Abyssinian Meeting House in search of help. There, in this humble house of worship, they found it.

The Abyssinian: where William Lloyd Garrison and, locals think, Frederick Douglass gave impassioned speeches while members of the congregation helped those on the Underground Railroad find their way to Canada—and freedom.

As local preservationist David Paul claims, this was “the Black history that nobody told.”

Established in 1828, the Abyssinian Meeting House on 73 Newbury Street in Portland, Maine, is—at least by its looks—a modest sanctuary. The simple wood-framed building, however, is also the third-oldest extant African American meeting house in the country.

Built by free African Americans just eight years after Maine entered the Union as a “free state,” the three-story, Federal-style building was once an important cornerstone for Portland’s African Americans.

"It's a very significant site and reflects not only African American history but really the history of Portland and of Maine," says Greg Paxton, executive director of Maine Preservation.

2009 image of the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, Maine. A two-story wood frame building in need of repairs.

photo by: Wikimedia Commons/Thomas.macmillion

Surmounting all odds, the Abyssinian still stands as a beacon for Portland's untold African American history.

But resurrecting the Abyssinian to its former hallowed honor, a grueling decade-long effort by Portland locals led by the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, has been a daunting task. Meanwhile, time is ticking: High-rise condominiums are going up fast along the east end waterfront.

“If we don’t act quickly to establish a historic district there to preserve the core of this India Street area, we could easily lose it,” Sally Oldham, trustee of Greater Portland Landmarks, says.

In the 19th century, the Abyssinian was a vibrant religious and cultural center. People flocked to the church for Sunday service, and in the evenings, everyone gathered for lectures, concerts, and lively socials. For a decade, it even served as the school for segregated Black children.

“They had a thriving community,” Paul says of the Ward 1 neighborhood, then 60 percent Black. Back then, one walked in with family and friends up the stairs to the main sanctuary. Each family in the neighborhood likely painted the pews their own color, judging by paint analysis.

“Usually old meeting houses then were nothing fancy, but this one had gas lights and carpets and plaster walls and the gallery—it was pretty luxurious,” Paul adds. “And it’s still standing!”

The meeting house impressively survived the Great Fire of Portland in 1866. As a third of the city went up in flames, local folklore says William Wilberforce Ruby, an African American fireman, put wet blankets on the roof, saving it from a fiery demise.

Portrait of famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, circa 1870.

photo by: Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress

William Lloyd Garrison, prominent abolitionist figure, spoke at the Abyssinian. Maine had abolished slavery in 1783 (the state was then part of Massachusetts).

“It’s a symbolic building addressing the question of personal freedom and civil rights and equal opportunity for all,” Oldham says. When the meeting house was constructed, in other churches African Americans were sectioned off to balcony seating or even discouraged from attending service. Five African Americans incorporated the Abyssinian Religious Society in 1828. It has since been housed at the Newbury building.

“It was the first place they [the self-emancipated enslaved people] would go to,” Paul says. “They’d come up to the meeting house and they had a hackdriver who would scurry them away to where they were safe and the rag dealer could get them some clothes and the barber could cut their hair so they’d look different.”

Due to this community network of support, the meeting house is now the only Underground Railroad site in Maine recognized by the National Park Service. The Abyssinian is also a stop on Portland’s Freedom Trail.

The meeting house's heyday, however, ended tragically. In 1898, the S.S. Portland ship sank with a third of the congregation aboard. After the church dissolved, the building was turned into a stable, a junk store, and a tenement at various points throughout the 20th century.

It wasn't until the early 2000s that the site finally came to the attention of Deborah Cummings Khadraoui, who told her father, community leader Leonard Cummings Sr., about it. He began looking into the project and later became the Committee’s President.

"The building was in close-to-derelict condition, and in 1998 it was purchased by the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian," Paxton explains. "Little by little they've worked on it and had a major effort at the end of the last decade in replacing the roof, restructuring the attic, removing tenement apartments that had been built into the meeting house, and uncovering all the original fabric that was still available."

But the Abyssinian still has a very long way to go, including restoring the rest of the exteriors, interiors, and basement.

“We partnered with everybody we can,” Paul says. “Everyone, from the NAACP, even jailmates from the county jail to do cleanup work.”

The Committee also partnered with LearningWorks, a nonprofit providing learning opportunities for Maine’s at-risk youth, to have the students work alongside timber framing carpenters and learn the skills.

The Committee's vision, according to Paul: to have the meeting house again do everything it once did, including community events, music, and suppers. The Committee also envisions a museum and an educational center. But the restoration project is endangered by insufficient funding.

“It’s an expensive restoration,” says Oldham. “It has just been a local group that has been working on this. They have the support of the broader community, but Maine is not a wealthy state and it’s a challenge to raise money for historic preservation.”

The Abyssinian was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and on the National Trust's 2013 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Now, it needs the $ 1.5 million to help share its story to the public.

“I hope to see the restoration project completed and the Abyssinian as a living part of this community,” Oldham says.

But one ought to have faith on the Abyssinian.

“It’s going to survive,” Paul believes. “It has survived everything so far.”

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