Macon Bolling Allen was the first African American lawyer admitted to the Maine Bar, in Portland in 1844. Allen practiced law in Boston, then after the Civil War moved to South Carolina and became a judge.

The announcement on Page 2 of the July 11, 1844, edition of The Brunswicker that Macon Bolling Allen had been admitted to the Maine Bar, obtaining his license to practice law and becoming the first African American lawyer in the United States. Courtesy D. Brock Hornby

An 1873 newspaper reports that, at Municipal Judge William Morris’ request, Allen sent a “fine oil painting” of himself to include in the collection of pictures of Cumberland County lawyers in Portland City Hall, site of the municipal courtroom. Allen’s significance was well understood; the Portland Daily Press reports July 1, 1873, that “Mr. Allen enjoys the distinction of being the first colored man ever admitted to the practice of law in the United States.” Two years later, Morris donated his entire collection to the Cumberland Bar Association – “a fine collection and, in its present quarters (still at City Hall), a very attractive one,” the Daily Press notes Feb. 8, 1876.

City Hall suffered severe roof leakage in 1893 and a disastrous fire in 1908, but the portrait collection seems to have survived. The Jan. 25, 1908, Lewiston Evening Journal, describing the fire and referring to “pictures of members of the bar from the earliest times down to the present,” says that “all the pictures were saved, it is understood.”

The Nov. 28, 1909, Boston Globe reports that the new Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland (the one still in use) then received the collection – “over 100 portraits” of “many noted members of the Maine Bar from the early days down to the present time.” It also displayed Morris’ handwritten catalog of his collection, according to the May 7, 1910, Daily Eastern Argus. That catalog, now at the Maine Historical Society, refers to Macon Bolling Allen’s portrait as No. 79 in the collection and gives details about Allen’s life. Newspaper clippings inside its front cover report that the society acquired the catalog in 1912 and expressly list Allen among the lawyers whose biographies Morris included. There’s no suggestion in the 1910 or 1912 accounts that the significant Allen portrait had left the collection.

Cleaves Law Library at the courthouse has a good portion of the Morris collection. The library also has a numbered, handwritten list much like that at the historical society, with “Allen Macon B.” as No. 79. But there’s no Allen portrait. Cleaves law librarian Nancy Rabasca has searched the courthouse high and low, to no avail. Likewise, the historical society, the Maine State Museum and the University of Southern Maine’s African American Collection have no portrait of Allen.

In fact, a separate, typed list at Cleaves uses double red lines to cross out “Allen, Macon B.” next to No. 79 and assigns that number in handwriting to “Barnes, Phinehas.” Allen’s is the only name crossed out with red lines.  “January 25, 1916” is penciled on the front page of the list, but we don’t know when the red-lined cross-out and substitution occurred. A later, 1933 version of the list at Cleaves omits Allen entirely. Apparently Allen’s portrait had left the courthouse without fanfare – despite the law library’s 1910 display of a catalog that described Allen and the 1912 newspaper accounts mentioning Allen among the featured lawyers.

So what happened to the “fine oil painting”? Perhaps there’s a benign explanation. Was it irretrievably damaged in the 1893 City Hall roof leak or 1908 fire? There’s no recorded evidence or suggestion of that.

It’s also possible Jim Crow attitudes replaced Judge William Morris’ pride in a Cumberland County African American lawyer becoming a South Carolina judge. Are the double red lines and the portrait’s disappearance attributable to the resurgent Klan influence in 1920s Maine? Was this an intentional erasure of an African American from Portland’s legal history? That’s a more sinister possibility.

The quest isn’t over. Searching old newspapers is seldom easy, and new archives turn up from time to time. Perhaps a reader will find a way to pursue this mystery further than I have. Are there stories handed down orally about what happened to the Judge Macon Bolling Allen painting a century ago? I’d love to hear them.

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