Recent protests led by Black Lives Matter brought thousands of residents into the streets and highlighted the systemic nature of anti-Black racism in Maine’s largest city and across the world. Some may be surprised to learn that although slavery was formally banned in Maine, Portland’s history is filled with connections to the slave trade. Many of its wealthiest residents became extremely wealthy because of the labor of enslaved people elsewhere. Portland must study this uncomfortable part of its past, acknowledge that it directly benefited from it and enact the demands of the recent protests as a means of beginning to eliminate pervasive and ongoing racial oppression.

Few know that the only U.S. slave trader ever executed for his crimes came from a respected Portland family. Nathaniel Gordon hailed from an old Maine family of ship captains whose wealth derived in part from the trafficking humans from West Africa to the Americas. In 1860, he and his crew sailed to a slave trading post at the mouth of the Congo River in what was then the Portuguese colony of Angola. There, Gordon and his men kidnapped 897 women, men and children. After being captured by the U.S. Navy, he was tried and convicted for piracy. Because of the rising tide of abolitionist sentiments, Gordon was sentenced to death. Shortly thereafter, President Lincoln, who was then conducting a war against the Confederacy primarily over slavery, denied his request for a pardon and Gordon was hanged for piracy. Though his execution was widely covered at the time, it is too often forgotten today, especially in his hometown.

Some Portland residents owned slaves themselves. One prominent man was Ruggles Morse, owner of the stately Victoria Mansion. Popular histories omit or de-emphasize his ties to slavery, such as a 2019 children’s workbook that describes him as simply a “man from humble beginnings.” Not alone, the Maine Memory Network states that “Morse made his wealth in the hotel business.“ Unmentioned is the coerced labor that greatly contributed to his success. Based in the slave port of New Orleans, Morse purchased 23 people between 1846 and 1858. Even after retiring to Portland following the war, the Morse family were unrepentant Confederates who “hung a portrait of Robert E. Lee just inside the (mansion’s) kitchen door,” Morse also financially supported the building, in his former city, of the infamous, now-removed statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. While Victoria Mansion acknowledges that Morse owned slaves, more consideration is necessary to describe how enslaved people made the building of this landmark and the larger economy possible.

Another prominent businessman who reaped the harvest of slavery was John Bundy Brown. One of Maine’s most affluent men, he owned over 400 acres of land in Portland, including much of the West End and Western Promenade. His vast fortune derived from both the hundreds of American workers who processed sugar on the city’s waterfront and the enslaved Cubans who grew it. As historian David Carey Jr. wrote, “By selling the food that sustained them and consuming what they produced, Maine’s major port became a primary beneficiary of Cuban slaves’ labor.” The capital derived from the sugar trade funded the construction of the Portland institutions, including impressive mansions on the Western Promenade and the city’s first art museum. One of Maine’s leading real estate companies, J.B. Brown & Sons, has its origins in these ill-gotten gains.

As part of ongoing efforts to eliminate anti-Black racism, I urge government officials to commission historians, particularly Black historians, to document this history as well as the long-term benefits derived from enslaved labor. Alongside this study, we must publicly acknowledge these wrongs and take action to rectify them. Demands such as those made by Black Lives Matter Portland are an important starting point. Other actions could include the creation of a Monument to the Victims of Slavery and fully funding the restoration of the Abyssinian Meeting House, as well as rewriting school curricula to disseminate this history of Portland’s ties to slavery. Portland has a proud history of resistance to injustice, but it is long past the time to redress the Forest City’s role in the exploitation of enslaved people.


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