A new beginning for Malaga Island

After 98 years, the State has the courage and conviction to apologize

By Ramona du Houx

October 31st, 2010

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Rep. Herb Adams holds up Maine's official recognition of shame on Malaga Island. photo by du Houx
Malaga Island is a 42-acre densely wooded island — a welcoming place to relax and enjoy nature. But this picturesque Maine island has a troubled history. In 1912 the State evicted a mixed-race community of 48 people, ripped up 17 graves, and institutionalized some residents. For many who visited Malaga on September 12, 2010, a flood of emotions overwhelmed them as they reflected on that past, which prompted an official State apology.

“Let me just say that, I’m sorry — I’m sorry for what was done,” said Governor John Baldacci, who traveled to the island nature preserve, where he met with nearly 30 of the islanders’ descendants during a ceremony to commemorate the island as part of the Maine Freedom Trail network.

At the time of the forced relocation, a eugenics movement, one that tries to link race and poverty to intelligence, fueled news reports that the islanders were ignorant, immoral, and lazy.

“It’s reprehensible what happened to your families and, you know, the spirit you bring to today is a spirit that others can learn from, because it isn’t about retribution and revenge and hate and violence. It’s about trying to find hope and opportunity. We’re all in this together; we’re all one people. Today we recognize our past, so it may never happen again. If discrimination happens to anyone of us in Maine today, it happens to all of us. Most importantly, is to say we’re sorry.”

Rachel Talbot-Ross of Maine’s NAACP and Maine’s Freedom Trails, along with her family, have been working for a number of years to get official State recognition about Malaga Island.

Governor Baldacci is only the second governor to visit the island — after Frederick Plaisted, the governor who authorized the eviction.

“Governor Plaisted is no longer the chapter for this history. We are rewriting it today, and we’re doing it with the help and the blessing and a belief in something else by a different governor — Governor John Baldacci,” said an emotional Talbot-Ross. “Thank God he had the wisdom and really the heart and soul to say he was sorry.”

Last spring the state Legislature passed a joint resolution sponsored by Rep. Herb Adams, who read the proclamation out loud at the ceremony. The resolution expresses the State’s “profound regret” and officially acknowledges the State-sponsored eviction, the relocation of some of the island’s residents to what was then the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, and the eugenic sterilization of former island residents in 1925. The school also became the final resting place for the bodies exhumed from the island’s cemetery.

“Peace, at last to Malaga,” boomed Rep. Adams with conviction. “May scientists explore its secrets. May students study its histories. May Mother Nature reclaim her own. And may the old ghosts find peace at last.”

Benjamin Darling, a freed slave with $50, came to Maine in the late 1700s. His granddaughters, Fatima and Hannah, started the island community that grew to include people of Scots, Irish, Anglo, Native American, and African-American ancestry.

Meeting with strong resistance from older Darling generations, one descendent, Dana Darling, took the DNA test, which confirmed his family’s ancestry.

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The unveiling of the official Freedom Trail marker which tells of the island’s history, to all who visit. photo by du Houx

“With the governor’s apology — it casts Malaga in a totally different light,” said Dana Darling. “These people weren’t feeble-minded; they were just poor. This event begins to change a negative to a positive. Today, I’m truly proud to be a descendent of Benjamin Darling.”

Many descendants met their cousins for the first time at the ceremony. The youngest is two and has bright blue eyes and blond hair.

“It’s physically almost impossible to tell that we have black heritage. My father fiercely denied our heritage,” said Marney Darling Voter, another descendant of Benjamin Darling. “Our parents suppressed it; our parents wouldn’t talk about it. We’re the first generation in our family to say that we have a black heritage.”

On Malaga, off the shores of Phippsburg, local fishermen still store their traps, and tourists visit in the summer. Without the Freedom Trail plaque unveiled at the ceremony, visitors would be unaware of the island’s history — all the houses were removed as part of the eviction order.

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“Let me just say that, I’m sorry , I’m sorry for what was done,” said Governor John Baldacci, who later hugged a descendent of Malaga Island, Marney Darling Voter, next to the Freedom Trail marker. photo by du Houx
( PHOTO: “You don’t realize the impact until you see the tears streaming down people’s faces,” said the governor.)

“It is so important to tell this story,” said Debbie Leighton a contributor to the Freedom Trail project and Phippsburg resident, “to bring some healing for those terrible events.”

During the ceremony, tears, which welled up from hearing about the horrible treatment of the islanders and their covered-up history, were replaced with tears of healing, as Governor Baldacci apologized for the state.

“It was a powerful day. Most importantly we recognize what happened in the past and are moving forward to a stronger future,” said state Sen. Seth Goodall. “The Freedom Trail plaque says it best stating, ‘This trail is dedicated to the people of Malaga Island whose only desire was to live and work in peace and acknowledge their right to freedom and justice.’”

The Malaga Island Freedom Trail is a joint collaboration between the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which owns the island, and Maine Freedom Trails, which works to preserve and protect Maine’s African American heritage.

The island has revealed archeological evidence of how the community lived, with excavations conducted by the University of Southern Maine.

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USM Nate Hamilton, explains the archeology finds his team made on Malaga island to Baldacci and Tallbot Ross. photo by du Houx

“It’s really an archeologists dream, with shells right on the surface and pottery shards just below. It has been undisturbed since 1912,” said Nate Hamilton, professor and archeologist at USM. “We’ve also uncovered Native American artifacts of an older community.”

Lindsey Weeks, a student at USM said, “This was my first archeological excavation, and it made me realize I want to become an archeologist.”

There will be a special exhibition about Malaga Island at the Maine State Museum in 2012.