Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
In the fall of 1826, a letter appeared in Portland’s Eastern Argus newspaper. It bore the signatures of six African-American men. In it, the men condemned the Second Congregational Church, saying it was racist. They also said it was time the city’s black residents got a church of their own.
The paper printed the letter 191 years ago this week, on Sept. 19, 1826.
At the time, slavery was illegal in Maine but segregation was not. The Second Congregational Church was forcing African Americans to sit only in the balconies. It sometimes discouraged them from attending church at all, according to the letter.
The letter-writing men were Christopher Christian Manuel, Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clement Thomson, Job L. Wentworth, and John Siggs. In 1828 they were among 22 black residents petitioning the state Legislature for permission to incorporate their own church. That year, they won the right and set up Portland’s Abyssinian Religious Society.
In 1831, Reuben Ruby sold the congregation a plot of land on Newbury Street. There they built the Abyssinian Congregational Church. The Federal style, wood-frame building had a loft, plaster walls and carpeting.
The Abyssinian housed an active congregation for the next 86 years. It became the hub of African-American life in town. It ran a school for 55 black children until 1856, when Portland’s schools became integrated.
It also became the center of abolitionism in the city. Both Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison gave fiery speeches from the pulpit, calling for an end to slavery.
Connected by rail and sea — and being close to Canada — Portland was an important stop on the Underground Railroad system. Leaders and members of the church concealed and transported runaway slaves. Reuben Ruby drove a hack for a living and ferried passengers to, and from, the docks in his horse-drawn carriage.
The Abyssinian Meeting House is the only Underground Railway stop in Maine recognized by the National Park Service.
The meeting house was also one of a few wooden buildings in the city that escaped the flames of the Great Fire of 1866. William Wilberforce Ruby, son of Reuben Ruby, was the first to raise the alarm when the blaze began. He’s said to have then covered the meeting house’s wooden-shingled roof with wet blankets. Thus, burning cinders from the conflagration couldn’t set the building alight.
Over the years, other African-American churches organized and the Abyssinian congregation declined. In 1898, 19 of its members went down with the steamship Portland in a November gale. In 1917, the congregation dissolved and the building became a tenement.
Over the years, Portland forgot about Abyssinian’s important place in its history.
By the 1990s, the building was derelict and owned by the city for back taxes. But things started looking up in 1998. That’s when the newly formed Committee to Restore the Abyssinian purchased the building.
Since then, the committee has worked to research and restore the building. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as the third oldest African-American meeting house in the country. In the future, they hope it will become a museum.
See what what you can get started, just by writing a letter to your local paper?
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.