Nov. 11—LEWISTON — Historian Bob Greene, a retired journalist, has long studied Black history in Maine. He said it began by looking into his genealogy, and finding out that his family dates back to 1750 in the New Gloucester area.
Greene, also a former trustee of the Maine Historical Society, said during a Great Falls Forum on Thursday that he's an eighth generation Mainer. He told the audience stories of other Black families who arrived much earlier.
The earliest he's found — through historical records at least — was in 1608, a man who worked as an interpreter for French explorers, who was also fluent in Dutch, English, French and Micmac.
A fellow historian, he said, has found records on some 2,000 Black people in Maine prior to 1800.
During the forum Thursday, titled "Overlooked Stories and Histories — African Americans in Maine," Greene and other panelists touched on Maine's tag as being the "whitest state in the nation," saying that it dismisses a rich history of Black and indigenous people in the state.
Moderator Leslie Hill, a retired Bates College professor, argued that while someone may judge Maine by its census figures, "you would never tell your family story with just numbers."
"You tell it with the stories," she said, adding that people should also not ignore the indigenous people who occupied the area for thousands of years. "The numbers are a very small part of the history. We need to unearth the stories."
Hill said that with the arrival of African refugees in more recent decades, the tone is now shifting. Mana Abdi, the state's first Somali-American legislator was elected this week.
The panelists also referenced the book "Maine's Visible Black History," by H. H. Price and Gerald Talbot, which tells the stories of African Americans in Maine since long before it was officially a state. The discussion Thursday also echoed one of the central themes of the book — that many contributions of blacks in shaping Maine have gone largely unacknowledged.
Panelist Rachel Ferrante, executive director of Museum L-A, which honors the historic work and innovation of Lewiston's textile mills, said that museums have been "reckoning with being the keepers of history," and that for a long time museums have been the keepers of "specific histories" that exclude African Americans.
Candace Kanes, a researcher at Bowdoin College in Brunswick who has been a curator for the Maine Memory Network, touted several resources she's used to look into Maine's Black history. That includes newspaper archives and the U.S. Census, she said.
When Kanes curated a Civil War exhibit in 2013, she found stories about formerly enslaved people who came to Maine after the war. In Lewiston Sun archives, she found the story of Ben Rice, a former slave who in 1883 Lewiston was one of the "best known faces in town."
Greene told the story of Crawford Wilson, who owned a hotel in Eastport around 1860, and had 11 people working for him.
He echoed Kanes' statement on the use of newspaper archives to find lost stories.
"There are ways to find the truth, all in newspapers, even the bad truth," he said.
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