By Andy O’Brien
The Abyssinian Meeting House on Newbury Street in Portland is one of the most famous historical landmarks of the African American community in Maine. It is the oldest Black church in the state and the third oldest Black church in the U.S. Throughout the 19th century, the Abyssinian Meeting House was a hub for Portland’s Black community, serving as a house of worship, a center for anti-slavery activism, a venue for leading abolitionist speakers, and one of Maine’s first Black schools. The historic building is currently undergoing a full restoration to become a museum of Maine African American history.
Black Portlanders built the Abyssinian Meeting House between 1828 and 1831. They wanted a separate place to worship because they faced racial discrimination in local white churches. For instance, the Second Congregational Church in Portland had church pews that were segregated by race, and African American worshippers were forced to take seats in the balcony. Many Black members of churches in Portland complained that they were discouraged from attending services. In a letter titled “To the Public” in the Eastern Argus newspaper dated September 15, 1826, Black Portlanders Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clement Tomson, Job L. Wentworth, Christopher C. Manuel, and John Siggs wrote that they spoke for about 600 free Black Portlanders in pleading for a separate place of worship.
“Provision for the accommodation of a very few of our people is made in several houses of public worship; but while the provision is totally inadequate to our wants, the privilege granted us is associated with such circumstances, as are calculated to repel rather than invite our attendance,” the men wrote. “Nay, pardon our misapprehensions if they be such, we have sometimes thought our attendance was not desired.”
Ruby was a prominent anti-slavery activist and a successful hack driver – the 19th-century version of a taxi – and a leader of Portland’s Black community. He donated the land at the base of Munjoy Hill where the Abyssinian Congregational Church was built in 1831. Ruby also worked clandestinely on the “Underground Railroad,” transporting African American men, women, and children fleeing bondage in the South via steamship and through western Maine to Canada.
When the Abyssinian Meeting House first opened its doors in the early 1830s, calling publically for an end of slavery was controversial and even dangerous. Maine had just been admitted into the union as a free state in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to enter as a slave state, in an effort to avoid upsetting the balance between slave and free states. The Missouri Compromise also outlawed slavery above the 36o30′ latitude line in the remainder of the Louisiana Territory.
White men of property and standing feared that abolitionists would upset the delicate balance and provoke the South into a Civil War. Maine merchants, shipbuilders, and textile mills relied on slave labor – from shipping goods from the South, to manufacturing cotton picked with slave labor. So when abolitionists came to speak in Maine, prominent white men in the communities organized mobs to attack them. At abolitionist meetings in Portland, Bath, and other towns, mobs shouted down anti-slavery speakers, called them “n—— folks,” pelted them with eggs, and smashed in windows and doors with rocks and bricks.
Most of Maine’s political leaders, like Hannibal Hamlin – Abraham Lincoln’s future vice president – supported the American Colonization Society (ACS), which advocated for sending free Black Northerners and enslaved people in the South to the newly founded American colony of Liberia in West Africa. Many of the ACS’s predominantly white supporters opposed slavery, but believed African Americans could never achieve equality in America; others were Southern slaveholders who feared that free Black citizens in the North would provoke insurrections of enslaved people and topple the slavocracy, as happened during the Haitian Revolution in the early 19th century.
But the Black community was overwhelmingly opposed to Liberian colonization. Most had lived in America for several generations, and no longer had any connection to Africa. They had built the economy of the U.S. with their free labor and believed they had just as much right to live here as anyone else.
Next month’s focus will be how Maine’s Black community fought against slavery by organizing anti-slavery societies and helping self-emancipated Black people from the South escape to freedom in Canada.