The Portland Board of Education is expected later this month to review a recommendation to rename Riverton Elementary School for community and civil rights leader Gerald Talbot. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Superintendent Xavier Botana is recommending that Riverton Elementary School be renamed after Gerald Talbot, “Maine civil rights icon, community leader and first African American elected to the Maine Legislature.”

Gerald Talbot File photo

Botana’s recommendation comes on the eve of Black History Month in February and just less than a year after former Mayor Ethan Strimling sent the same request to the Portland Board of Education.

The school committee will hold a workshop on renaming the school Jan. 21, which will be followed by a public hearing and possible adoption on Feb. 4.

Botana sees Riverton, one of the district’s most diverse schools, “as the ideal facility” to bear Talbot’s name.

“The school is working to emphasize its role as a community hub offering a range of opportunities, supports and services to everyone, ranging from children to adults,” he said. “A new name highlighting a man who represents the broadest definition of the word community would help to communicate that message. Additionally, the Talbot family has family connections that make Riverton an especially meaningful place for them.”

Talbot’s daughter Regina Phillips is thrilled that the school her grandson attends might bear her father’s name.

“It’s an incredible opportunity, and our family is extremely honored, humbled and very appreciative of the superintendent,” said Phillips, who is a grant writer and community outreach coordinator for the Westbrook School System.

Naming a school after Talbot came up a year ago when Strimling sent a formal request to Board of Education Chairman Roberto Rodriguez. Strimling said Talbot has had an “exceptional” impact on the city, state and country as an educator, civil and human rights activist and founding president of Portland’s branch of the NAACP.

“He is one of Portland’s most cherished and respected leaders. Naming one of our elementary schools for Mr. Talbot will encourage generations of students to not only pursue education throughout their lives, but to get involved in their communities and make a positive difference in the lives of others,” Strimling wrote in the letter, which was signed by the entire council.

Gerald Talbot, front right, helps to carry a banner during a protest march through downtown Portland in 1967. Portland Press Herald / Gerald Talbot Collection

The board in May passed a resolution to develop a process for considering renaming an elementary school for Talbot.

In August 1963, Talbot was among a group of notable Mainers who participated in the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his famous  “I Have a Dream” speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. During his three terms in the Maine Legislature, Talbot fought for the rights of migrant workers, sponsored the state’s first gay rights bill and “led efforts toward gun control, tribal sovereignty, fair housing, equal employment opportunities and health care,” the board’s resolution said.

Talbot challenged racial discrimination in Portland’s rental housing market, going to court over it three times. He was a key figure in the passing of the Maine Fair Housing bill, Maine Human Rights Act and the creation of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

“He has worked hard for social justice his entire life,” Phillips said of her father, who in 1995 donated to the University of Southern Maine his collection of personal papers, books, artifacts and photographs documenting African Americans in the United States, particularly in Maine. The university renamed a lecture hall in his honor.

Under the Portland school board policy, a school’s name must preserve or honor history, be place-specific, recognize landmarks or geographic locations near the school or be named in honor a person who has made an outstanding contribution to teaching and learning or on the local, state, federal or international stage.

If renamed, Riverton would be the second elementary school in the city to recently get a new name. In 2018, the board decided to change the name of the reconstructed Hall Elementary School to pay tribute to longtime school nurse Amanda Rowe.

Several of Portland’s schools are named for people, including Longfellow Elementary School (Henry Longfellow), Reiche Elementary School (Howard Reiche), Lyseth Elementary School (Harrison Lyseth), Lincoln Middle School (Abraham Lincoln), King Middle School (Helen King) and Moore Middle School (Lyman Moore). Other schools, including East End Community School, Ocean Avenue School, Presumpscot Elementary School Cliff Island  School, Peaks Island Elementary School, Deering High School, Portland High School and Casco Bay High School are named for the neighborhood or area they are located in.

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