Portland’s Black maritime workers and the abolitionist movement
by Andy O’Brien
In the first half of the 19th century, a thriving Black neighborhood existed near the docks at the base of Munjoy Hill in Portland. The majority of the residents were the descendants of formerly enslaved people. When slavery was abolished in much of New England during the late 18th century, many newly freed people flocked to seaport cities like Portland in search of work.
Other Black Portlanders came from the West Indies. They arrived in connection with the trade network that brought molasses to Portland to be distilled into rum. There was plenty of work to be had unloading shipments of molasses – Portland once had as many as seven distilleries running day and night, converting the thick, sweet syrup into rum. That was before Maine banned the manufacture and sale of liquor in 1851.
In those days, Black workers were banned from most trades. Often, the best-paying jobs Black people could find were loading and unloading ships or working as cooks, stewards, and porters on the many sailing vessels that came in and out of Portland’s busy harbor. Most white Mainers did not want to work as longshoremen because the pay was so low for this hard, manual work. In the words of one African American sea shanty, “O rouse an’ bust ‘er is the cry, a black man’s wage is never high.”
In 1872, historian William Goold described what one might have seen near Portland’s docks earlier in the century:
Here in good weather … were collected the stevedores, sailors, boarding-house keepers, and all who had an interest in the discharging and fitting away of West Indiamen, which was the principal … trade of Portland. … Conspicuous among the Sunday crowd was the black crew who discharged all the molasses by hoisting it out by hand, keeping time to their amusing songs while at work. They were sure to have a large audience to hear their singing. Many churchgoing people on coming out of meeting [church] … then took Fore Street on their way home, no matter where they lived.
Maine historian Michael C. Connolly notes that in the 1840s, Black residents represented a slightly higher percentage of the overall population in Portland than in Boston. The center of Black community was at Mountfort and Newbury (then named Sumner) Streets. White Portlanders called it “N— Hill,” which indicates just how deeply racist the climate was then.
The neighborhood was one of the poorest in the city, but maritime jobs allowed Black Portlanders to achieve a level of respectability and financial stability that was rare for free Black workers in northeastern cities at the time, noted Jeffrey Bolster in his book Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. These workers of color not only helped finance the construction of the Abyssinian Meeting House, a Black church on Newbury Street, but also founded a free Black school for their children in the same building.
As Bolster writes, Black seamen were politically engaged and culturally sophisticated as a result of traveling all over the world. They were also very influential in free Black communities throughout the African diaspora in the U.S. and the Caribbean – they carried news of the day from port to port as they traveled.
Before there was a Black press in the United States, this informal communications network was the main platform to dispense news about global events like the Haitian Revolution and the debate between abolitionists and those who wanted to send African Americans back to Africa. According to Bolster, the network of sailors helped forge a Black diasporic identity by integrating local communities into the larger community of color.
Black sailors frequently smuggled abolitionist literature from New England into southern ports. Black Bostonian David Walker encouraged Black sailors to smuggle his revolutionary pamphlet Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in their sea chests, or sewn into their clothes, to hand out to enslaved workers in southern ports.
In his fiery Appeal, Walker called for African Americans to unite and revolt against the slave masters, writing, “they want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us … therefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed … and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.”
Southern elites grew alarmed after copies of the Appeal turned up around the South, and passed laws putting restrictions on Black sailors from entering their ports. Thousands of free Black seamen were arrested, jailed, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor for the crime of being Black in antebellum southern ports. Some were even kidnapped and sold into slavery, despite being legally free.
In spite of this repression, Black maritime workers remained a critical part of the abolitionist movement until the Civil War. Next month’s column will cover the role these workers played in helping enslaved people escape to freedom on Maine’s Underground Railroad.