BATH — Visitors to a new virtual Black history project next month on Patten Free Library’s website will see information ranging from a children’s book about a former slave to a story about medical experiments so objectionably racist they drew an apology from then-President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Roberta Jordan, left, Patten Free Library’s outreach and instruction librarian, and Katy Dodge, head of children’s services, with the book “Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness.” Dodge will give a reading of the children’s book about a 19th-century former slave who worked with a sick racehorse. Contributed / Roberta Jordan

Those projects and more will be on display as part of what the library calls a “Community Teach-In/Read-In” event. Visitors to the site can check in for daily updates when new projects submitted by library staff and the community will be added.

 

Roberta Jordan, who is coordinating the month-long presentation, said the library has been offering online events through most of 2020, following the May 25 death of George Floyd while in the custody of white police officers in Minneapolis.

The library, Jordan said, held discussions such as a “Makeshift Coffee House,” an online discussion of violent protests; a teen book group in July on the book “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi; and a Maine Humanities Council-sponsored book discussion series this fall, also focusing on racism.

“When the George Floyd incident happened, the library had a number of responses,” said Jordan, who is the library’s outreach and instruction librarian.

Jill Piekut Roy, the library’s archivist and special collections librarian, said she was inspired to do a video project chronicling the life of Robert Benjamin Lewis, a 19th-century Black man who lived in Bath from 1848 to either 1857 or 1858 — records are unclear exactly when he left the city. Lewis, a writer and inventor, had two claims to fame: the first was a book, published in 1836, called “Light and Truth,” which the library has a copy of.

“Not only was he a resident of this city, but we have something that connects us to him,” Roy said.

The book is a global nonfiction history of African-American and Native American people. Roy said it stands out for focusing on non-white people, as opposed to similar books at the time, which were written by and from the perspective of white Europeans.

“I think it (the book) was a direct response to racism in the field of ethnology,” she said.

Lewis’ other notable achievement, Roy said, was his advent of what he called the “hair picker,” a machine that automatically processed oakum, a fibrous material that at the time was commonly mixed with tar and pounded between the planks of a ship’s hull as a waterproofing agent. There’s no record of Lewis’ machine being used in Bath, she said, but given the city’s shipbuilding history, such a machine would have saved a lot of manual labor, no doubt making it useful.

“It’s something that is plausible, but we don’t really know for sure,” she said.

Sadly, Lewis, apparently disillusioned with racism in the United States, left the country on a boat to Haiti, possibly to do missionary work there. He died upon arrival of an undocumented illness in March of 1858.

Sheila Spear, who lives in Arrowsic, said she is presenting a slide presentation on the Tuskegee syphilis study, a controversial experiment on Black men with syphilis by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The experiments started in 1932 and lasted some 40 years before being discontinued in 1972. Spear, a native of Bath, England, said she has family members who are both African and African-American, and called the experiment “An appalling example of racism and abuse in the medical profession.”

According to Spear, researchers at Tuskegee University in Mason, Alabama, observed 400 Black sharecroppers who had contracted the disease. For the duration of the study, non of the 400 men with the illness were allowed treatment of any kind, not even when some of them joined the U.S. Army in World War II, and not even after 1943, when penicillin became a common treatment and cure for the disease.

At the study’s 25th anniversary in 1955, two-thirds of the men (the rest had died) were finally compensated with $25, Spear said.

“That’s $1 per year to be allowed to suffer with syphilis,” she said.

Spear said the experiment ended after a congressional investigation in 1972; in 1997 then-President Bill Clinton issued a public apology for the experiment.

Spear first learned of this experiment by reading a historical account and thought it was appropriate to produce a project on a medical case, given the country’s current focus on the pandemic.

“It occurred to me at a time of medical crisis that it might be a good project,” she said.

As of Monday this week, the library had 10 official submissions for the website project, but an American history class at Morse High School will be submitting as many as 22 more projects, Jordan said. The library’s submission period has been extended to Jan. 29, but Jordan promised that no one will be turned away if they miss the submission deadline.

“If somebody had a really good idea, I would love to talk with them more,” she said.

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