October 21, 2013

Portland’s torn past on slavery re-emerges

The City Council’s treatment of honors for notables Nathan Clifford and George Cleeve, both rumored to be slavery sympathizers, is a study in contrasts.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Nathan Clifford of Portland was a U.S. Supreme Court justice in the mid-1800s who didn’t believe the federal government should meddle with states that supported slavery.

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City officials initially rejected this statue of George Cleeve, now on the waterfront, because of rumors he had owned a “colored servant.”

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Nathan Clifford

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Last month, the City Council designated the former Nathan Clifford Elementary School on Falmouth Street as a local landmark and is trying to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Clifford’s views on slavery were raised during the Sept. 16 meeting, but dismissed by City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who represents the district. Suslovic said council action is designed so a project to redevelop the former school into market-rate housing can receive federal tax subsidies.

“To me, the historic designation does not reflect Justice Clifford’s views on slavery,” Suslovic said.

That attitude is a far cry from the city’s treatment of George Cleeve, who is considered the founder of Portland.

About a decade ago, city officials refused to accept a statue of Cleeve because he was rumored to have owned a “colored servant” when he and his business partner Richard Tucker arrived on the peninsula in 1633. The accusation was first raised in a history of Cape Elizabeth written in 1965.

The council’s rejection of the statue came even though no proof existed that Cleeve ever owned a slave. In fact, Cleeve descendants presented evidence to the council that the servant, Oliver Weekes, was a sailor hired to assist Cleeve’s settlement in Portland.

The row continued the following year when the city refused to allow the Amistad replica ship to dock at Portland Yacht Services, where the 7-foot bronze statue of Cleeve now stands near the water’s edge behind a chain-link fence. The Amistad was a 19th-century tall ship that was taken over by slaves and depicted in a movie of the same name.

The apparent double standard highlights the long shadow that slavery continues to cast over the city, in some ways.

And Clifford and Cleeve are not the only prominent figures in Portland history to have such skeletons in their closet.

While many abolitionists called Portland home – including William Fessenden (a U.S. representative and senator in the 1840s and 1850s, and President Lincoln’s Treasury secretary in 1864 and 1865) – and the city is home to the Abyssinian meeting house (built by free African Americans in 1828), many people were torn over the issue of slavery.

In many ways, Maine’s economic dependence on the South split the state over the slavery issue.

Portland was a robust maritime port in the mid-1800s. In addition to sugar cane, vessels delivered cotton from the South to feed the state’s textile industry.

Although many Mainers believed slavery was morally wrong, their economic interests were reliant upon industries that used slave labor.

“(Mainers were) caught in a dilemma between whether they want to support the union and the abolition of slavery versus their own incomes,” State Historian Earle Shettleworth Jr. said. “This is a very complex period in American history.”

During the 1800s, Maine – and Portland in particular – were an important cog in the so-called Trade Triangle.

Sugar cane from the South was shipped to Portland, where it was made into white granulated sugar and molasses on the city’s waterfront, which at one point imported three times as much sugar cane as Boston.

That molasses was then used to make rum, which in turn was used by human traffickers to acquire slaves, according to local historian Herb Adams.

“Maine was intimately connected to” the Trade Triangle, Adams said.

Such was the case with Nathaniel Gordon, a Portland native who has the distinction of being the only American to be tried, convicted and executed for trading slaves.

(Continued on page 2)

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