I imagine that I can see Malaga Island from my father-in-law’s home office, which I commandeered in early March when my family descended on my husband’s childhood home on Orrs Island. In reality, the window looks south to the Pond Island Ledges, but Malaga is in my mind’s eye as I wait out this first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state where I was raised.

Malaga Island lies off the coast of Phippsburg at the mouth of the New Meadows River. This area is the ancestral territory of the Wabanaki peoples. It was colonized by Europeans in the 17th century – indeed, the 1607 failed settlement around the peninsula at Popham was one of the earliest English colonies in North America. By the 19th century Malaga was one of many islands whose inhabitants lived by fishing, foraging and doing business with the neighboring mainland communities.

What made early 20th-century Malaga unique, as most Mainers know, is that it was home to a multiracial community of around 40 Black, white and mixed-race people. Most of Malaga’s residents traced their ancestry to Benjamin Darling, a Black man who purchased the nearby Harbor Island in 1794. Malaga was settled by Darling’s descendants in 1860. Over the next 50 years the community grew to more than 40 residents. They boasted among their ranks Jim McKinney, the fiddler and owner of the only 1½-story house on the island; William Johnson, a Civil War veteran of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, composed of Black soldiers from across the United States; and numerous children who attended school first in a room of the McKinney house and then in a separate structure.

By the early 20th century, the rocky islands of Maine’s coast began to be marketed by entrepreneurs as “Vacationland.” Maine’s coastline became recognized as a tourist destination and a national treasure. Caught in a land dispute between the towns of Harpswell and Phippsburg, Malaga property was undisputedly valuable and caring for its residents was seen as an unwelcome burden. The community at Malaga was poor, mixed-race, uneducated and seen as a liability to the image of Maine as an ideal vacation location. Here, in the whitest state in the country, we must remember that blackness has long been seen as a threat to Maine’s vision of itself.

In the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, public sentiment railed against the community at Malaga, crying for its dissolution. The local papers attacked the community with racist rhetoric about the “half-breeds” who lived there, describing Malaga’s population as “immoral,” “shiftless” and a “shameful disgrace” filled with “degenerates.” In 1912, Gov. Frederick Plaisted bought the island from its titular owners in order to evict the residents of Malaga lest the community there continue to grow and lead to what the governor’s executive report described as “a large increase over the present population for the state to care for.” The people of Malaga packed up their lives, dismantling their homes or floating them intact along the coast, where neighboring communities in turn rejected them, denying them “pauper” status that would enable them to collect some poor relief.

The state also sent eight residents of the island directly to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded in New Gloucester. The property that used to bear this name is now known as Pineland Farms. As a child growing up in Pownal, just over a mile away from Pineland, I learned to ride a bike under those towering pines. I remember my mom saying the place felt haunted – stories of abuse and mistreatment were rampant until the institute was closed in 1996. As a high schooler and member of the Greely ski team, I participated in countless Nordic ski practices and races at Pineland. I remember passing the small cemetery after one practice, though at the time I did not know that it contained the disinterred remains of 18 people from Malaga’s cemetery heaped into three unmarked, mass graves. In 2013, my husband and I were married on the grounds of the now completely transformed facility. Places may change, but we must not forget their pasts, even as their dark truths recede from our daily experiences.


As a historian of science, I have to teach my students about the ways that science has been used in the past to justify horrific actions against groups of people. This fall, I will use the example of the eviction of the people of Malaga Island from their homes when I lecture about eugenics – the now-repudiated science behind efforts to perfect a society by taking control of people’s reproduction. Eugenics was cutting-edge science in the early 20th century, and it was wielded to try to create societies where people who were considered to be physically, mentally or morally inferior were to be selectively bred out of the population. It reached its horrific peak, of course, in the genocidal policies of the Nazi regime in Germany, which Hitler initially modeled after eugenics programs in the United States.

The unapologetically racist language of eugenics was evoked repeatedly by those clamoring to remove the residents from Malaga Island, who were denounced as “degenerates.” This same term was also used to describe the people institutionalized at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. Marriage laws and eugenics laws implemented in Maine in the 1920s and 1930s prevented “feeble-minded” people from marrying and allowed any resident institutionalized for “insanity” or “feeble-mindedness” to be forcibly sterilized without consent. Some 76 percent of the 326 documented forced sterilizations in Maine were of people deemed by doctors to be “feeble minded.” A full 86 percent of the documented victims were women. Although these numbers are low compared to some other states, the Maine attorney general noted in 1936 that many more operations had been performed than those recorded.

Following the Nazi atrocities against the Jews in World War II, eugenics became a dirty word in the United States, though its egregious policies lingered. The use of federal dollars for forced sterilization was only prohibited in 1974, when the Southern Poverty Law Center, while working on the Relf v. Weinberger case, uncovered the shocking figure that between 100,000 and 150,000 women were still being forcibly sterilized in the United States each year. Countless others were being threatened with the revocation of welfare money if they did not consent to these procedures.

From the dispossession of people from their homes to institutionalization and forced sterilizations, the histories of Maine’s people of color, indigenous people, Jews, women, the disabled, and the poor are all deeply intertwined. Oppression never happens to a single group of people in isolation. Malaga is a story about state violence against a mixed-race community in Maine, and it is no coincidence that the forces in play brought some of this community to the institution at Pineland.

I love Maine. My experiences here have fundamentally shaped my identity. But Maine’s identity is ever-changing, too. When I worked at the Maine State Archives in 2009-2010 on the commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I would never have guessed that a mere decade later I would see so many Confederate flags proudly displayed on vehicles, garages and barns around the state. The display of Confederate flags in Maine further belies the notion that this symbol has anything to do with Southern pride – we all know it is a symbol of white supremacy, a legacy that, unlike the Confederacy, is indeed part of Maine’s history.

Right now, we are witnessing a historic moment for our state and country. The coronavirus pandemic has shut many of us in our homes, the economy (if not the stock market) is in free fall, and recent studies are showing that people of color are significantly more likely than whites to die of complications from COVID. The powers of state, in the garb of police officers around the country, are once again killing Black people – this time through a nationwide epidemic of police violence.

During this time of many tragedies I implore the people of Maine to remember their history. As I’ve returned to live for six months in the state I once called home, I am remembering Maine’s history when I look at the ocean. I remember Malaga, and I remember that Maine’s whiteness is something people created, intentionally and cruelly. In my more optimistic moments, I remember that anything created can also be dismantled, intentionally and with empathy. We must all remember that Maine’s motto – “the way life should be” – is a call to action, not a statement of fact.



Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.