BIDDEFORD — At the McArthur Public Library on Thursday, author Mark Alan Leslie told a bustling audience about the history of Maine from an alternative perspective, in honor of Black History Month. To a room overflowing with resident Mainers, young and old, Leslie expounded upon the state and its connections with the African Americans of the 19th century.

Mark Alan Leslie speaks to the audience about the underground railroad routes and the history of the slave trade in Maine. BENJAMIN LEVESQUE/Journal Tribune

Leslie opened the presentation, made possible by Adult Services Supervisor Melanie Coombs and archivist Renee DesRoberts, by transporting the audience to the past through popular literature. In the writings of James Fenimoore Cooper, author of “The Last of the Mohicans,” it appears that the renowned figure held racism as closely as he held his craft. Further, from the perspective of Georgian Colonel John C. Reed, Leslie portrayed the inferred relationship between blacks and whites.

“The negro looked up to and worshiped the white as a god,” quoted Leslie, “whom he felt it was right he should serve all the days of his life. Thus, the word ‘slavery’ had lost all its repulsiveness; the slave had become family, and he was loved as such.”

He then spoke on the separation of a church in Maine — the Second Congregational Church, and the newly-formed Third Congregational Church — which represented visible racial tensions in the state. The churches, prior to their separation, reportedly debated whether prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass should be allowed to give an anti-slavery speech to the congregation in the 1850s.

This event has become something of urban myth, and can be found in greater detail in the article “Abolitionist legend in Biddeford gets a fresh new look.”

Leslie brought audience members through the routes and safe-houses of the Maine of the Underground Railroad that slaves would have used to make their journey to safety in Canada. Locations such as the Quaker Meeting House, in Durham, or the Holyoke House in Brewer.

One such safe-house, constructed by Captain Ebenezer Farwell in 1842, was of particular interest. The Farwell Mansion of Augusta was never inhabited by the owner, yet it served as a station along the railroad. It is ironic, Leslie said, that a slave trader’s house (Farwell’s) was used to bring slaves to freedom. Greater irony can be found in the fact that Farwell died on the open sea, apparently on a voyage to a slave trading port.

While Leslie kept the audience’s rapt attention, Melanie Coombs supervised the event.

She contacted the author in November of 2018 in preparation for Black History Month after finding his book, “True North: Tice’s Story.” The piece, published in 2014, tells the story of the title character, who used many of the safe-houses and routes Leslie described on Thursday night.

For Coombs, bringing authors like Leslie into the McArthur’s Community Center provides cultural programs for the city of Biddeford.

In her time since working as a middle school history teacher, Coombs hasn’t left behind her passion for the past.

“Anything that makes history more accessible is amazing,” said Coombs. “History is accessible to all ages.”

In the Community Center, Leslie explained the methods used by slave allies (known as “conductors” on the railroad) to bring slaves North. Sometimes, a painted white chimney with black trim may have been the signal of safety. However, innocuous gestures such as a tug of the left ear whilst passing a slave said, “follow me to a safe place.” Allies even used quilts, embroidered with various patterns of black and white, to send silent messages to passing, escaped slaves while the quilt lay over allies’ porch railings.

Leslie explained how wealthy abolitionists contributed to the cause. In Brunswick, private interests declared the need for a drainage network, and paid for its construction posthaste. City residents were eluded in the creation of a long tunnel that aided slaves in their escape under the city’s streets.

Most of Leslie’s findings, he reinforced, were supplemented by McArthur archivist Renee DesRoberts.

DesRoberts, who has been working at the library for over a decade, worked with Leslie to uncover Biddeford’s background in the era. Through the use of newspapers, posters, and historical documents, she was able to understand the city’s role in the slave trade.

The Maine Democrat, a magazine published in the mid-19th century, is a single example of the area’s connections to slavery. In its use of heavy-handed language and blatant white supremacy, DesRoberts discovered that the state could not be excluded from the ills of the nation’s past.

DesRoberts’ work with the Maine Democrat is one example of the value her new project, digitizing historic documents, can provide. Since she came to McArthur, DesRoberts said, she has wanted to digitize historical documents to bring the people of Maine closer to their history.

“I had wanted to do it since I got here, and that was 11 years ago,” said DesRoberts.

The project was made viable after library Director Jeff Cabral applied for a grant to the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, whose funds supplied the means to bring DesRoberts dream into fruition.

As she continues her work, the citizens of Biddeford, Saco, and Sanford will find a greater bank of resources available to them through the McArthur Public Library website.

The McArthur Public Library Community Center fills to capacity to hear author Mark Alan Leslie talk about Maine’s role in the Underground Railroad. BENJAMIN LEVESQUE/Journal Tribune

Leslie’s presentation, overseen by Coombs and supported by DesRoberts, came to a close with questions from the audience. In the course of answering a question about the number of black people in Maine, Leslie said that by 1754, there were around 150 slaves present in the state.

“I was pleased to see how many people were interested in coming,” said local Vicky Adams, after the event.

“I hadn’t realized Native Americans were involved in the ferrying of slaves,” said Allen “Al” Adams, Vicky’s husband. He referenced the Holyoke House of Brewer, whose owner (Mr. Holyoke) was friends with the Passamaquoddy tribe native to the region. The Passamaquoddies, said Leslie, would paddle up the coast from Bangor to Fort Fairfield transporting slaves.

After the presentation, Leslie described what drew him to historical fiction. His works, including “Midnight Rider for the Morning Star” (2008), and “The Crossing” (2017), a novel centered around the Ku Klux Klan of 19th century Maine, are meant to engage everyone in history.

“We never got taught about the underground railroad,” said Leslie, “we never got taught about the Ku Klux Klan — it wasn’t in the textbooks.” His work can be used to remedy that situation for current and future students.

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