Maine Maritime Museum in Bath will open a new exhibit Thursday, “Cotton Town: Maine’s Economic Connections to Slavery” that reveals Maine’s complicated and long-buried connection to slavery.

Tess Chakkalakal, chair of the Africana Studies Department at Bowdoin College and author, and her Africana Studies students helped curate the exhibit. Chakkalakal said she hopes the display dispels the narrative that the North universally advocated for abolition, because the whole truth is messier than that.

Bowdoin College students examine artifacts for the Maine Maritime Museum’s new exhibit that reveals Maine’s economic connection to slavery. Photo courtesy of the Maine Maritime Museum

“The idea is to complicate the story that we think we know,” said Chakkalakal. “The idea that the South and North were so disconnected is one that we want to shake up. The North and the South had more in common than we think they did.”

The exhibit includes newly discovered artifacts exposing the efforts of 19th-century Bath captains, merchants and shipbuilders to stifle abolition and protect the town’s economic interests in slavery, primarily through the cotton trade, according to a statement from the museum.

Pre-Civil War letters from ship captains, merchant logbooks that detail the transport of enslaved people on Maine ships, and photos of Bath-built schooners used for the Southern cotton industry can also be found in the exhibit.

“This important collaboration between Maine Maritime Museum and Bowdoin College helps complicate Maine’s role as a ‘free state’, by pointing to its involvement in the shipping of cotton and enslaved peoples,” Christopher Timm, interim executive director of Maine Maritime Museum Interim Executive Director wrote in a statement. “In the past, this was sanitized through a focus on global trade or naval architecture — this exhibit instead emphasizes the direct human and cultural cost, which continues to this day.”

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Though Maine’s connection to slavery is undeniable, Chakkalakal said there is clear evidence Bath residents advocated for abolition as well, even if it hurt them financially.

“The students found a newspaper clipping about Frederick Douglass speaking in Bath,” said Chakkalakal. “There were many opposed to Frederick Douglass giving his speech, but there were ship captains who supported it and worked against their own economic self-interest in order to find a space to give his talk.”

Bob Greene, former journalist and historian of Maine’s Black history, said the Maine Maritime Museum’s new exhibit and others like it across the state are needed, especially now, because they reveal the state’s honest and ugly history.

“We have always looked at slavery as a Southern problem, and it’s not,” said Greene. “Because of slaves in the South, factories in the North were running and had to have people running it. On the backs of slaves, some people made money, and making money is what counted.”

“During the Civil War, a lot of Maine’s coastal communities were tightly connected to the South via shipping, whether it be building ships or using them to transport cotton – which was the big money coming out of the South – or captaining ships,” Greene added. “People don’t realize the only ship captain that was convicted and executed for carrying slaves from Africa was a man from Maine: Captain Nathaniel Gordon.”

The state’s connection to slavery stretches beyond shipping docks, said Greene. According to his research, Mainers kept slaves, though in smaller numbers than the southern plantations. What complicates things is the fact that those enslaved people in Maine were sometimes listed in records as servants, said Greene.

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“I found one in Cape Elizabeth in 1860, a young lady who was listed as a servant,” said Greene. “She was 9 years old and from Cuba, and she was with the same family all the way up to 1926 when she died and was buried in South Portland. She never married and never left the house, but was she a slave? We’ll never know.”

Maine Maritime Museum Educator Luke Gates-Milardo said digging into Maine’s complicated past and relationship with slavery is an important element in moving forward and creating a better future for everyone.

“Presenting new perspectives and emphasizing new stories is vital to engaging the public in conversations that might have an impact on how we view our world today,” said Gates-Milardo. “The hope, I think, is that a more inclusive understanding of history can help achieve a more equitable future.”

The new exhibit will open to the public on Thursday, Dec. 16 and run through May 2022.


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