March 13, 2010

Maine's first helps elect nation's first

— Thirty-six years ago, he was the guy everyone was talking about. Gerald Talbot, the young, outspoken black man from Portland, had turned heads from Kittery to Fort Kent by becoming the first African-American ever elected to the Maine Legislature.

Now here Talbot stood Tuesday morning behind three dozen other early birds outside St. Pius X Church. Inside the soon-to-be-opened polling place, history once again beckoned.

''So many hopes lay on this,'' Talbot said as the line behind him grew longer and longer. ''So many people, so many ancestors who never, ever thought this could happen. Or would happen.''

Barack Obama. A black man. On the verge of becoming president of the United States.

''Everything I've got, I hope he wins,'' Talbot said, holding his hand to his chest. ''He's got to win. For the whole country. For the whole world.''

He's 77 now, far removed from those heady days back in the 1970s when he parlayed his role as perennial leader of the local NAACP chapter into three terms as a state representative from Portland.

The first time his name appeared on the ballot, Talbot was one of 20 candidates for 11 at-large House seats in Portland. His biggest worry: Voters would use up all their choices on the alphabetical ballot before they got to ''T.''

''I'm way down the bottom of the ballot!'' he recalled, laughing at the butterflies that plagued him that day. ''Who's going to go way down to the bottom of that ballot and vote for a black loudmouth?''

Well, 3,367 Portlanders did -- enough to place Talbot 10th in the runoff and send him off to the State House.

His first impression?

''It was all marble,'' he said. ''And I kept asking myself, 'What am I doing here? How did I get here?' I didn't even know where the men's room was.''

But he knew Maine, having grown up in Bangor before moving to Portland after high school. And he knew his country, having served a hitch in the Army after the Marines turned him down because he was, of all things, colorblind. And he knew, then as now, that real change doesn't happen overnight.

For six years in the House, Talbot spoke loudly and frequently about issues -- gun control, equal rights for gays and lesbians, a state holiday to honor Martin Luther King -- that would take years to gain political traction. He battled to delete the names of nine locations on the Maine map that included what we now refer to only as the ''n'' word.

Back home in Portland, he railed against racially discriminatory landlords (Talbot and his wife, Anita, were among the victims), police who routinely stopped the city's 300 or so black citizens for no apparent reason and schools that taught precious little about African-American culture.

Along the way, Talbot crossed paths with many a black icon. He can still remember the evening in the mid-1970s when he raced north from Augusta in his Volkswagen bus -- steering wheel in one hand, a sandwich in the other -- to hear onetime presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm speak at the University of Maine at Orono.

''Shirley Chisholm,'' Talbot recalled, smiling at the memory. ''Ah yes, Shirley Chisholm.''

Back in 1973, Ebony magazine published a book containing photos and small bios of the country's 1,000 ''most successful'' black people. Talbot, by virtue of his legislative seat, was among them.

For decades, he's used his copy of the book to collect autographs of people he admires -- Jesse Jackson, Bishop Desmond Tutu, heavyweight fighter Joe Frazier and yes, Barack Obama.

Truth be told, Talbot was a Hillary Clinton supporter when this presidential race started two years ago. He didn't really know much about Obama at the time and had seen too many Great Black Hopes enter and exit the nation's political stage to think the young senator from Illinois would be any more than another wistful daydream.

But then he heard one after another of Obama's spellbinding speeches. He saw the crowds grow exponentially at each stop along the campaign trail. And by the time he and his wife finally met Obama at a fundraiser in Cape Elizabeth, Talbot found himself wondering if the White House could indeed become home to a black man.

''We grew like he grew,'' Talbot said. ''And as we watched him, we said, 'Well, he's got a lot together.'''

Suddenly, the door to the polls swung outward. A woman emerged and hollered, ''We now declare the polls to be open!''

The crowd cheered. The line started moving. As Talbot neared the steps, a local candidate thrust out his hand and said, ''Great day for America, huh?''

''Oh yeah,'' said Talbot, beaming. ''It's a great day.''

One by one, voters ahead of him took their ballots and headed for one of the 13 red-white-and-blue-draped booths.

''Oh my God,'' Talbot said, shifting from one white-sneakered foot to the other. ''I'm losing 10 pounds just waiting.''

Finally, it was his turn. He checked in with the election workers, took his ballot and, with an audibly deep breath, headed for an empty booth. For seven long minutes, he huddled over the ballot.

And with that, Maine's first black legislator voted to elect the nation's first black president.

Standing outside, Talbot fielded one more question: Back on Election Day in 1972, back when he himself was testing the racial divide, would he have thought this day possible?

''Never,'' he replied. ''We just didn't think it was ever going to happen.''

As he spoke, the line outside the polls grew even longer. Morning greetings and laughter filled the air.

''And here we are,'' Talbot said. ''It is happening.''

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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