Published Date Written by Cliff GallantOn Sept. 19, 1826, a lengthy letter to the editor from six African-American men appeared in the Eastern Argus, Portland's leading newspaper of the day, taking the city's churches to task for treating African-Americans as second-class citizens by relegating them to church balconies and "Negro pews". The letter was very carefully written, in consideration of the temper of the times, but it made its point eloquently and with deft use of understatement.
"Pardon our misapprehensions, if they be such," the men wrote, "but we have sometimes felt that our attendance was not desired."
Thereby was the movement set in motion that was to culminate in the construction of the still-standing Abyssinian Meeting House on Newbury Street in the year 1831. Only Boston and Nantucket have African-American churches that are older, making Portland's the third oldest still-standing African-American meeting house in the United States.
Newbury Street, at the time named Summer Street, was chosen as the site of the meeting house because it is in the area where the city's African-American population was centered at the time, that being at the bottom of Munjoy Hill between the Eastern Cemetery and the waterfront.
The meeting house is a relatively simple wood structure that, by all odds, should long ago have disappeared, by one means or another. That it still stands today approaches the miraculous. It has somehow withstood the ravages of nearly 200 years of Maine weather, survived major fires — including the Great Fire of 1866 — and has somehow managed to remain intact through periods of outright neglect. There's been a good deal of "watching over," to be sure, and it continues to this day.
The Abyssinian Meeting House had an active congregation for 86 years, from 1831 to 1917. The meeting house was the focal point of Portland's vibrant African-American community for all of those years and was the scene of countless baptisms, marriages and funerals, the histories of which are abundantly rich in human drama and captured in diaries and oral accounts that have been passed down through time.
Over the course of its history the meeting house existed not only as a place of worship, but was also the site of a school for African-American children into the 1850s. It was also the site of spirited abolitionist meetings at which nationally known figures appeared. In fact, the Abyssinian Meeting House is recognized nationally as an underground railroad site by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
When the Abyssinian Meeting House congregation disbanded in 1917, with many of the members moving to the Green Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, on Sheridan Street, the meeting house was sold and for the next 75 years or so was variously used as a stable, an apartment building, and an antique store before becoming vacant and being acquired by the city of Portland and sitting for a period of time in a state of disrepair.
The person credited with igniting the process that has led to the formation of the currently active Committee to Restore the Abyssinian is Shoshana Hoose, who was a reporter for the Press Herald in the 1990s. Hoose collaborated with Karine Odlin on the making of the film documentary "Anchor of the Soul" in 1994, which is a general history of Portland and Maine, with an emphasis on black history, particularly of the Abyssinian Meeting House and the Green Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church.
Inspired by the film, Deborah Cummings-Khadraoui organized the first meeting of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian and the committee bought the building from the city for the symbolic fee of $250, which was the price the founders of the meeting house paid Reuben Ruby for the lot the structure was built on in 1831. Interestingly, Ruby was also one of the six men who penned the fateful letter to the Eastern Argus in 1826 preceding the original construction of the meeting house.
The committee has been incredibly committed to its mission and, according to Len Cummings Sr., the current president, help has been received from many quarters and the restoration is proceeding at a very encouraging pace.
"This has been a broad-based project all the way," says Len, "the restoration of the Abyssinian is important to the local African-American community, yes, but it has meaning for all people everywhere, in Portland, throughout the State of Maine, and even nationally."
Indeed, the mission to restore the Abyssinian Meeting House has been embraced on a local, state and national level in a way that signifies an overall awareness of the historical significance of the project. The restoration is being overseen by Deb Andrews of the City's Historical Development department, and by Earle Shuttlesworth, the official historian of the State of Maine. The Maine Historical Society is also actively involved, as is Greater Portland Landmarks.
The hope is that the restoration of the façade and the first floor of the meeting house will be completed sometime this year, and that public tours and some programing might be possible as early as this summer. The long-range plan is that the restoration will be fully completed by 2016, at which time the Abyssinian Meeting House will exist as an interactive educational museum and cultural center highlighting the important part that African-Americans have played in the history of our city, state and country.
There's a grand vision forming for the Abyssinian Meeting House that the six bold men who penned the fateful letter to the editor in 1826 never could have foreseen in their wildest imaginings.
Their legacy to us is that character and justice matter for everything and will triumph in the end.
Who they were and what they did have meaning for us all, and the restoration of the Abyssinian Meeting House means that their names — Caleb Jonson, Christian C. Manuel, Reuben Ruby, John Siggs, Clement Tomson, and Job L. Wentworth — will always be remembered.