Maine Immigration: A History
By Andy O’Brien
On October 15, 1834, activist and businessman Reuben Ruby of Portland, who was Black, joined nearly 90 prominent white men from all over the state as a delegate to the first Maine Anti-Slavery Society convention in Augusta. By this time, Ruby owned several carriages as part of his taxi business and had been getting more involved with movements for progressive reform.
In the lead up to the convention, handbills appeared all over Maine towns announcing the appearance of the great British abolitionist orator George Thompson, who was in the middle of his first lecture tour of the United States.
Anti-abolitionist newspapers condemned Thompson as a “foreign agitator,” seeking to stir up trouble. Prior to his appearance, the Democratic Augusta Age denounced Thompson as a “mischief-maker coming across the ocean to teach Americans their political duties.” It called the abolitionists a “CRAZY HEADED SET OF FANATICS” and queried if anti-slavery activism could “be at once crushed in the bud.”
On the first day of the convention, Thompson delivered a searing anti-slavery speech in which he held up the editorial and mocked it. The Augusta Age editor, who was sitting in the audience, promptly stood and angrily left the room. That night, while Thompson was staying at the Hallowell home of the Rev. Benjamin Tappan, someone smashed the front windows of the house. The next day at the convention, a group of five anti-abolitionist men approached Thompson and informed him that they were greatly offended by his speech. They warned him to leave town immediately, but he politely refused. Unlike in Massachusetts, where violent mobs hurled bricks at his head and attempted to abduct him, Thompson’s opponents in Maine were relatively subdued.
Reuben Ruby was likely present when George Thompson spoke to Black congregants at the Abyssinian Church in Portland after the Augusta convention. He lectured them about “exhibiting a pure and blameless conduct” to make a good impression on the white population in order to further the cause of abolitionism. Leading the meeting were African American pastors Rev. George H. Black, who was featured in the March issue of this column about his role in the Underground Railroad, and Rev. William C. Monroe, an underground railroad conductor, a close associate of the militant abolitionist John Brown, and co-founder of Noyes Academy, an interracial college in New Hampshire.
Ruby was so inspired by Thompson that he and his wife Rachel named their fifth child George Thompson Ruby, who became a prominent labor leader and Texas state senator after the Civil War. They named another son William Wilberforce Ruby, after the British politician who led the movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. William Ruby went on to become the first, and possibly only, Black officer elected to the Portland Fire Department, according to historian Bob Greene.
While Reuben Ruby did not play a very public role in the Maine Anti-Slavery Society’s first convention, he was one of the signers on the society’s founding document. In its preamble, the society’s constitution drew upon the spirit of freedom and equality as written in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
The “most High God,” they wrote, had made everyone on the face of the earth of “one blood” and endowed them with certain inalienable rights among which are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It further stated that slavery “is a gross violation of the law of God” and it is everyone’s duty to “do what they can to put an end to this system of oppression.”
The Maine Anti-Slavery Society also resolved to “promote the intellectual, moral and religious improvement of the free people of color and by correcting prevailing and wicked prejudices” and help them achieve “equality with the whites in civil, intellectual and religious privileges.”
This was a cause that was near and dear to Ruby’s heart, with his previous role in co-founding Portland’s Abyssinian Church to spread religious, moral, and educational instruction to the Black community. But in practice, the society’s white leaders focused primarily on the plight of enslaved African Americans in the South and they did very little to help free Black Mainers attain equal rights in their own backyard. It’s highly likely these factors were a major reason why Ruby did not stay involved with the Maine Anti-Slavery Society.
The following year, in 1835, he focused his attention on the American Association of the Free Persons of Colour, a national free Black-led organization focused on achieving equal rights, abolition, and racial equality. Through his involvement in the organization, Ruby became a leader in the “Colored Convention Movement,” which included some of the most prominent Black reformers in America.
Next month’s column will cover some of the important work these Black leaders carried out both in Maine and the nation.