Marnie Voter, 64, of Windham, a distant relative of the people who once called Malaga Island their home, has done extensive research into their descendants. She says she was struck by the depth of the trauma that runs through the generations. “Everywhere I went, it was shame, it was shame, it was shame,” she says. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

It was December 1911 when three men came for the Marks family, seven black adults and children who had until that moment lived peacefully on tiny Malaga Island at the mouth of the New Meadows River in Phippsburg.

A doctor, a sheriff and a judge held court in their modest home, and wielding the power of government mandate, declared the entire family unfit for society because of their race, dooming them to live out most of their lives at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded.

“So that day they were taken by boat to Bath, by train to Portland, by stagecoach to Pownal, and when they went through the doors, the men went one way, the women the other,” said Marnie Voter, a distant relative of the 40 or so people who called Malaga Island home. “And that was the end of their family.”

Jacob Marks died within two weeks of being committed to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. Photo from unknown newspaper clipping

Jacob Marks, the patriarch of the family, died two weeks after he was committed to the institution. Four other family members died there later.

It remains a shameful moment in Maine’s history that has drawn apologies from two governors and prompted years of research and soul-searching by descendants of Malaga Island, including Voter. She has worked for four decades to reclaim her distant family history and finally offer respect to the families that were brutally broken up and scarred so many years ago.

On Friday, state officials and descendants of the Malaga Island families will gather at Pineland Farms, the site of the former institution where the Markses were committed, to dedicate a monument in honor of the community that the Maine government ordered wiped away.

“As anyone can imagine, this event had a lasting impact on our families,” said Charmagne Tripp, a Malaga Island descendant who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. “This monument will provide healing and closure. Acknowledging our family members and providing dignity at their burial site are meaningful and empowering in the way we will tell our story to future generations.”

Speakers at the 1 p.m. ceremony will include Gov. Paul LePage, descendants of the Malaga Island residents, and Rev. Holly Morrison of the Phippsburg Congregational Church. The granite memorial will bear the names of those forced by the state to leave their homes. Funding for the nearly $30,000 monument came primarily from the governor’s office contingency fund, which contributed $24,000. The balance was provided by private donors.

This memorial to Malaga Island residents will be dedicated Friday at Pineland Farms Cemetery. The island near Phippsburg was evacuated in 1912 and its residents were sent live out their days at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded in New Gloucester. Photo by Bruce Collette/Collette Monuments

“This is really a significant event for the descendants,” said Kate McBrien, a Malaga Island historian who also serves as the chief curator for the Maine Historical Society in Portland. “Because it is a formal and lasting recognition of who this community was. To finally have some recognition, it has really transformed their lives.”

GOV. PLAISTED: ‘BURN DOWN THE SHACKS’

Malaga Island was first settled in the mid-1800s. Residents lived in dirt floor, ramshackle homes and fished the tides of the New Meadows River to make a living. Most residents could trace their lineage to Benjamin Darling, a black man who settled on a nearby island in 1794. Some residents were black, others were white, making their families and children the subject of racist scorn.

By the early 1900s, an interest in the theory of eugenics, which attributed poverty and low intelligence to race and poor genetic makeup, was sweeping the United States.

Combined with a growing pressure to sweep unpalatable people off the Maine coast to make way for well-heeled, out-of-state vacationers, Maine officials undertook a campaign of mass relocation.

“I think the best plan would be to burn down the shacks with all of their filth,” Gov. Frederick Plaisted told a reporter at the time. “Certainly the conditions there are not credible to our state. We ought not to have such things near our front door.”

This stone, photographed in 2001, marks a grave in the Pineland Cemetery for some of the bodies that were moved in 1912 from Malaga Island. Staff photo by Jack Milton

In July 1912, Plaisted ordered the eviction of everyone on the island. The houses – built on piles of discarded clam, mussel and scallop shells – were burned if they weren’t removed by their owners.

The state exhumed 17 bodies buried on the island and combined them into five caskets, which were reburied at what was then called the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, later Pineland Farms. Six more people who died as patients at the school also were buried at Pineland.

The names of the exhumed islanders and the exiled islanders who died at Pineland have been engraved on the granite monument, which stands more than 6 feet tall.

McBrien said there is nothing left standing today on the 42-acre island at the mouth of the New Meadows River between Sebasco Harbor, a village in Phippsburg, and Cundy’s Harbor, a village in Harpswell.

It is now owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a land preservation organization based in Topsham, which acquired the island in 2001 and turned it into a preserve open to the public. The island, which features a marked trail, is only accessible by boat, McBrien said.

GOV. BALDACCI: ‘I’M SORRY’

The history of Malaga Island and the story of what happened there was kept hidden by the state and island descendants for decades, McBrien said.

But in the intervening decades, descendants of the island community have worked to reclaim their story and history.

“That’s the thing with history. You can’t hide it forever,” she said.

At a September 2010 ceremony on the island, then-Gov. John Baldacci apologized on behalf of the state to a group of distant relatives.

“To the descendants of Benjamin Darling, let me just say that I’m sorry,” said Baldacci, who was quoted in a Portland Press Herald story at the time. “I’m sorry for what was done. It wasn’t right and we were raised better than that. We’re better people than that.”

In 2012, an exhibit called “Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives,” opened at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, with LePage and descendants in attendance.

It was there that Voter recalled hearing LePage pledge to form a scholarship fund in memory of the islanders, which was created two years later in 2014. It is administered by the Maine Community Foundation in Ellsworth to support the children of the descendants.

Voter, 64, of Windham, credits her late husband for the discovery of her connection to the Malaga settlement. When they married in 1974, the couple went to the state archives in Augusta to research her genealogy, and she was surprised to learn she was a descendant of a slave.

As she researched deeper and began to talk to other descendants, she was struck by the depth of the trauma that continued to reverberate through the generations.

“Everywhere I went, it was shame, it was shame, it was shame,” Voter said. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous, this is a proud heritage. … (You’ve) got to quit being ashamed of who you are. This was done to you. You are innocent.’

“It started to break through some of the awful lies about their ancestors and that there was something wrong with them.”

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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Twitter: MattByrnePPH

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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