We Exist: Evidence of Maine's Black Families from 1800 to the 20th Century

“We Exist: Evidence of Maine’s Black Families from 1800 to the 20th Century” is the first of a six-part digital exhibit series. The exhibit centers on Black inhabitants in the state of Maine and seeks to tell their stories through a variety of institutions. This series focuses on the family with specific interests in family demography, childhood experiences (parents and offspring), parent-child relationships (attitudes and behaviors), romantic relationships, and family traditions, of Black inhabitants who lived or are currently living in Maine from the 1800s to the 20th century. The exhibit is comprised of photos, written transcripts, and audio interview clips from the Gerald E. Talbot and African American Collections.

The Black family remains a favorite topic across academia and in society in large part in response to the continuing stigmatization of Black families in America (Cain & Combs-Orme, 2005; Mandara & Murray, 2000; Painter, 2006). The ideas that the Black family functions at a deficit (Cain & Combs-Orme, 2005; Mandara & Murray, 2000) have led in part to the creation of harmful myths about the Black family, to the Black family being pushed to margins of society, and at times being outright omitted from societal history (McMahon, 2019). Examples of the myths which type-cast Black families in Maine are detailed in Tamara Kerrill Field’s newspaper report in 2019 on the history of Malaga Island. On the other hand, the family remains a favorite topic for Black artists, perhaps in response to the continuing stigmatization of Black families in America (Painter, 2006). With this in mind, “We Exist” was created as an artistic informational endeavor, and a research tool, to give details into family life through the lens of the Black population in Maine. We hope that the photos, written word, and audio in these galleries will lead viewers to reflect not only on Black families in general, but specifically Black families in Maine and how their histories can be learned (McMahon, 2019).

The exhibit consists of three focal galleries. The first gallery consists of photos that capture Black inhabitants in Maine in various social milieus in perceived family-type settings. The second and third galleries consist of interview quotes and selected audio recording clips from the oral history project “’Home Is Where I Make It’: African American Community and Activism in Greater Portland, Maine”. The purpose of utilizing these three means of highlighting Maine’s Black family is first and foremost, to stimulate the visual and audio senses. The visual and audio presentations will also help those with certain disabilities who are interested in the exhibit to actively participate. Next, using three mediums of presenting information on Maine’s Black inhabitant’s offers triangulation; using multiple sources to confirm the observable results about Black families in Maine. The quotes and audio clips are representations of how Maine’s Black residents view their family structure, childhood experiences, their children’s experiences, parenting ideas and actions, family relationships, and family traditions.

We are indebted to our partners at the University of Southern Maine (USM) Special Collections, the University of Southern Maine Libraries for their support in digitizing and building the exhibit site, and the Osher Map Library (OML). This site was built by USM Libraries and Digital Projects staff members Mary Holt, Library Specialist in Digital Projects and Special Collections with USM Libraries, and Jessica Hovey, Library Specialist in Digital Projects and Access Services with USM Libraries. Nora Ibrahim, Digital Imaging Assistant with the OML and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, assisted with photographing the Talbot Collection and many of the images featured in the exhibit. Sara Nazirli, Digital Projects Assistant with USM Libraries, assisted with uploading images for the exhibit. Shiloh Parker, Administrative Assistant with USM Libraries, and Carrie Bell-Hoerth, Library Specialist in Digital Projects and Access Services with USM Libraries, assisted with marketing and outreach. Special thanks and gratitude are in order for Susie Bock, Coordinator of USM Special Collections and Director of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine, David Nutty, Director of Libraries and University Librarian, and Dr. Libby Bischof, Executive Director of the OML. Dr. Lance Gibbs is the curator of this exhibit and served as the research lead for the project, providing historical background from news and scholarly references, and authoring the short contextual catalogue essay entries which complement the photos, written, and audio galleries.

We hope the digital exhibit transmits to a wide and diverse audience who may not have otherwise engaged with this aspect of Maine’s history. Also, we hope the exhibit serves as a guide for other institutions to follow that want to engage in the larger discussion on Black inhabitants relaying their histories through their own voices.

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All works in these collections are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Browse the We Exist: Evidence of Maine's Black Families from 1800 to the 20th Century Collections:

Series 1: Family - Photographs

Series 1: Family - Quotes

Series 1: Family - Recordings