As a Black man living in America for 85 years, Leonard Cummings has experienced racism in many forms.

Job discrimination. Police intimidation. A landlord who refused to rent an apartment to his wife, Mary Jane, in the early years of their marriage. The apartment was on Forest Street in Portland, next door to her mother’s house. There was a “for rent” sign in the window.

But the incident that still smolders in Cummings, a longtime activist in Maine’s African-American community, happened a few years earlier.

It was 1955, and he was an Army private, just 20 years old. He was on his way to Fort Riley in Kansas after visiting his folks in Maine. The train stopped at the station in Kansas City, Missouri. Cummings had some time to kill.

It was dark out and raining. Wearing his uniform, neatly pressed, Cummings walked to a nearby restaurant. The place was empty. He didn’t realize it served whites only. He asked for a cup of coffee.

“The guy behind the counter said, ‘I’ll give you a coffee, but you can’t drink it here,’ ” Cummings recalled. Stunned, he turned away from the man and stepped back into the damp night.

“Those words still go through me,” Cummings said. “Here it is 65 years later, and it still cuts me like it happened yesterday.”

With all he has witnessed, Cummings said, he hasn’t been able to watch widely shared videos that show the killing of George Floyd on May 25 by a police officer in Minneapolis. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been fired and charged with second-degree murder after he held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. Three other officers involved with the incident also were fired and face felony charges.

“I’ve experienced and seen and heard enough,” Cummings said. “I don’t need to see any more.”

Leonard Cummings, 85, a founder of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, looks out of a window inside of the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland on June 11. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Cummings said he’s heartened to see the outpouring of grief, support and calls for criminal justice reform and an end to institutional racism by protesters, lawmakers and others here in Maine and around the world. But he worries that the current response to racial disparities in the United States will once again omit the struggles that Black Mainers have faced for centuries.

In particular, Cummings wants people to recognize the 25-year effort that he and several family members have led to save and restore the Abyssinian Meeting House, a historic former church building on Newbury Street in Portland’s East End neighborhood.

And Cummings may finally get the broader support he seeks after the Abyssinian was featured Friday as a stop during a protest rally and march organized to mark Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the emancipation of African Americans from slavery.

“Give ’em some money and help ’em out,” said Tim Wilson, 79, a Black activist who spoke during the rally.

A patch known as a dutchman fills in a spot in the original floor of the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland that was mortised to fit tabs on the bottom of the pews that helped to hold the pews in place.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Built in 1828, the Abyssinian is the nation’s third-oldest meetinghouse constructed by a Black congregation, after churches in Boston and Nantucket. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as a northern hub of the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement. In 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Abyssinian as one of the most endangered historic places in the United States.

Despite this attention, the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, led by Cummings, has struggled to raise just over $1 million that has been spent so far to restore the timber frame building from its brick-and-mortar basement to its hand-hewn roof beams.

Through the years, members of the volunteer committee have pieced together funding from various sources, including federal agencies, historical foundations and anonymous donors. And they need about $1 million to complete the project, now in its final stages.

Leonard Cummings walks down the newly constructed stairs inside of the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland on June 11. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Cummings and his daughter Pamela, the committee’s president, recounted the Abyssinian’s vibrant history this month while showing off its recently refurbished floor. Several well-known abolitionists trod the wide pine boards in the years before slavery’s end. Only severely damaged portions were carefully cut out and replaced.

“We’re standing on the floor that Frederick Douglass stood on,” Pamela Cummings said. “This is history that’s been omitted from almost every history book in Maine. It’s history that has to be preserved and remembered.”

Leonard Cummings points out the marks in the original floor where the pews once sat in the Abyssinian Meeting House. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In 1826, six free Black men – Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clemant Tomson, Job Wentworth, Christopher Manuel and John Sigs – published a letter in a Portland newspaper, announcing their plan to build a church for the Black community. They no longer wanted to be relegated to the balconies and back pews of Portland’s white congregations.

“Pardon our misapprehensions, if they be such,” the men wrote, “(but) we have sometimes thought our attendance was not desired.”

The Abyssinian thrived through the 1800s as the religious and cultural heart of Portland’s Black community. Church membership took a serious blow in 1898, when the SS Portland was caught in a terrible storm and sank during a return trip from Boston.

At least 194 people died when the steamship went down, including 19 crew members who attended the Abyssinian. Two of them were church trustees. The congregation never recovered, and the church eventually closed. It was sold and converted into a tenement, with an added floor dividing the soaring sanctuary into several low-budget apartments.

City officials sold the boarded-up, fire-damaged, tax-delinquent property to the restoration committee in 1998 for $250. Since then, the nonprofit group has worked to stabilize, study and restore the building through grants and donations.

While rarity typically increases the urgency to save a historic structure, Leonard and Pamela Cummings say it hasn’t greatly accelerated the restoration of the Abyssinian.

Leonard Cummings opens up a window inside of the Abyssinian Meeting House. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

It’s a national challenge, according to Maine Preservation, a nonprofit that was instrumental in saving Rock Rest in Kittery, one of few Maine inns that welcomed African Americans in the 1900s, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Brunswick, where the noted author wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and sheltered a runaway slave.

Of nearly 95,000 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, only 2 percent are sites reflecting the lives and experiences of African Americans, said Greg Paxton, executive director of Maine Preservation.

“Despite efforts in recent years to include more racially diverse perspectives, (people of color) are still woefully underrepresented in the national historic preservation field,” Paxton said. “We must use preservation as a tool to tell the whole and complete history of our state and country and increase access to it.”

Now, in the building’s 192nd year, the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian is stepping up efforts to raise the remaining money and hopefully complete the project well ahead of the building’s 200th anniversary.

Leonard Cummings walks out of the Abyssinian Meeting House. He hopes current attention to the Black Lives Matter movement will encourage people to supports its restoration. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

It’s not an inexpensive proposition. The floor restoration was part of a $75,000 project that includes two circular stairways from the ground-level entryway to the church to the main floor. Like the original stairways, they will serve two ground-level doorways that are being restored to the building’s facade this summer, in a project that includes repointing the brick foundation.

The next major project will be the installation of eight new, 28-paned windows like the originals that stretched over two stories. They’ll cost about $125,000 and will be installed as funding is available, Leonard Cummings said.

Exterior of the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Then the ground floor must be fully finished – including installation of a bathroom, meeting room, bookstore and office space – along with the remaining interior and exterior features.

Cummings hopes current attention to the Black Lives Matter movement will ignite broader public interest in the Abyssinian and encourage people to support its restoration with financial contributions and other assistance.

“People are talking about how Black lives matter,” Cummings said. “People need to understand the importance of this building to the African-American community. Because until you know your history, you can’t know where you’re heading. This building is the beginning of that story. If Black lives really do matter, let’s finish this building.”


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