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A Freedom Trail Marker outside a historic church near City Hall in Portland, Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx.

August/September 2008

Article  Ramona du Houx

The Portland Freedom Trail (PFT) celebrated its one-year anniversary last July with the dedication of three additional granite markers at antislavery and Underground Railroad sites. All 16 sites have standing stone makers that tell stories about the unique history Maine played in the antislavery movement.

PFT organizers say each year additional makers will be added until all 36 Portland locations have the granite markers. Further research is needed on certain city sites as well as major sites all across Maine. In total, Maine Freedom Trails hopes to erect 75 markers across the state, getting communities involved at every step of the journey. The Portland Freedom Trail is the first part of the network of Maine Freedom Trails.

“It’s important to remember that it is not just about the markers; there is a huge component of bringing our collective history to the public square,” said Rachel Talbot Ross, one of the project’s directors. “Then people begin to see their own stories embedded in this struggle for freedom and equality.”

That was apparent at every site dedicated, because the decedents of the brave people honored on the plaques embedded on each marker took part in the unveilings.

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Governor Baldacci with actress Victoria Rowell at the original Freedom Trail opening at a marker in Portland’s historic Old Port. Photo by Ramona du Houx

“I’m so proud to have had such a courageous great-great-great-grandfather,” said a young 89-year-old Thurston Holt, at the maker on Union and Fore Street. “Deacon Thurston believed in freedom of the press and published antislavery papers, as well as newspapers and schoolbooks.” Brown Thurston was also a Deacon in the High Street Congregational Church.

Photo: Elijah Kai Whitehead and his father pay their respects to The Portland Freedom Trail as they look at the maker erected in honor of Amos Noe and Christiana Williams Freeman. conductors on the Underground Railroad

A barbershop that used to be across from the Munjoy Hill Observatory was owned by Charles Frederick Eastman. It was here that slaves would receive new identities in the form of haircuts or wigs. A marker dedicated to Eastman was one of the three dedicated. His descendant Craig McKenzie sang his appreciation during the block party that accompanied the unveilings later in the afternoon.

Maine Freedom Trails is in the process of developing a narrative intended to tell the collective story of the antislavery movement in Portland and others parts of Maine.

Daniel Minter, vice president of Maine Freedom Trails and the artist for the markers and promotional materials, is working on a satellite guide, so people driving in Portland will be able to understand what the standing stones represent. For Minter, making Portland’s rich antislavery history more visible to the public is important.

“I used to walk around Portland not knowing about our heritage. It’s an amazing history,” said Minter. “Now, everyone can see the connection with all the markers around the town, and they can read about the history on the plaques.”

Photo: The unveiling of the maker for a barbershop owned by Charles Frederick Eastman with Rachel Talbot Ross, Wells Staley-Mays and Portland city councilor, Jill Duson

Portland’s public works department has been placing the markers that are deeply embedded, three feet into the ground. “It’s been such an honor to work on this project,” said Scott Ballard of the Works Department. “It makes us feel we are a part of history.”

“Schools will be able to take field trips, learning about each site and the risks people took to harbor slaves,” said Justin Alfond, who is running for Maine’s state Senate. “It’s an important part of our heritage that will help educate future generations. The hands-on experience is something they will remember,” he said.

“Making the connection with our past helps to build a bridge to the future. To understand what people went through to help someone gain their freedom really makes you appreciate the freedom we all now share,” said Wells Staley-Mays, historian and a member of Maine Freedom Trails, who has been the major researcher. He worked on a similar project in Ohio.

City Councilor Jill Duson, who spoke and sang at the dedications, said Portland’s Freedom Trail this past year has worked to highlight the city’s diverse community and should be promoted to help the city economically. “We have a very vibrant culture and history. This should be known as a Freedom Trail of Commerce,” said Duson.

Jennifer Whitehead said Portland has had an identity change since she left for New York in 1998. “Now it’s more culturally diverse and more open. Events like today really make you feel that you are a part of a community,” she said. “It’s great to be home and to live in such a welcoming city.”

“The Portland Freedom Trail is the gateway to Portland,” said city councilor Kevin Donoghun.

Maine Freedom Trails is a nonprofit organization established to advance public awareness and scholarship on the experience of people of African decent in Maine, with an emphasis on the Underground Railroad and its importance to American history.

Daniel Minter, the artist that designed the Portland Freedom Trail markers, said that the trail gives everyone a sense of pride about Portland’s history