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August/September 2007

Article and photos by Ramona du Houx

The torch reigniting Maine’s historic connection with the abolitionist movement was lit last July when Portland’s Freedom Trail was officially opened by Governor Baldacci and Emmy-nominated actress/writer Victoria Rowell. (Photo Right)

Several descendants of Portland antislavery activists attended the ceremony, including historian Robert Greene, who got involved with the Maine Freedom Trail project through researching his own family history.

When slaves escaped and boarded ships to northern ports, their fate was left in the hands of people in underground communities that were brave enough to make a stand against slavery. Portland and towns throughout Maine had those kinds of communities. The city, at that time, was divided on the issue, and those involved in the Underground Railroad faced huge penalties if caught harboring a slave—the runaway slave often faced death.

Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 9.14.23 PMThe trail is based on years of research by local historian Wells Staley-Mays who talked of how a slave would be stowed away on a ship and then land in Portland. The first place they would go was the secondhand clothes shop, then a safe house or the Mariners’ Church. While 36 sites have been identified in Portland, most are no longer standing because of the fire that swept through the city in 1866. The 1.6-mile walking tour has 13 historic markers that tell of the importance of each site, and organizers would like to add seven more bronze-plated markers.

The markers tell the story of the individuals and families involved in the abolitionist movement as well as Maine’s unique African American educational, religious, cultural, and social experience.

The trail will preserve the history of the antislavery movement and encourage discourse about global freedom movements today.

“We’re not hiding behind myth or legend,” said Rachel Talbot Ross, Maine’s NAACP representative and one of the PFT project directors. “This is about looking at our collective history and dealing with the horrors of slavery.”

“I’m looking forward to the dialogue that should come from this,” said Dawud Ummuh, another project director.

Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 9.14.08 PM“This day has been about the past, the present, and the future,” said Greene, who’s family owned a barbershop where slaves, on the road to freedom, received a ‘new look,’ “and honoring those who have paved our way to here.”

About 300 people paraded through the Old Port with the governor, Rowell, and Mayor Nicholas Mavodones, Jr., with Staley-Mays leading them from site to site with traditional African music being played alongside them.

“The Freedom Trail is about educating and engaging our community, and all those who visit the city,” said Governor Baldacci co-chair of the project. “We should all be aware and inspired by our history of supporting freedom, tolerance and equality. The Portland Freedom Trail has inspired a sense of community pride and interest in the history of African Americans in Maine and in our ongoing commitment to justice and human rights.”

Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 9.14.17 PMThe Portland Freedom Trail is the result of the work of a diverse group of dedicated individuals and organizations, mostly volunteers. It’s a truly community-driven enterprise. Maine Freedom Trails, Inc. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to establishing a network of marked sites across the state, collaborating with other efforts to preserve Maine’s African American history and culture. There are approximately 75 possible Underground Railroad sites currently identified in Maine. Organizers hope to link all the sites together to have a statewide trail which would then link up to neighboring states and Canada.

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Rachel Talbot Ross, dedicated to preserving Maine’s African American, history is a PFT project director.