Series 4: African Americans, Maine, and Leisure Activities

Series 4: African Americans, Maine, and Leisure Activities

"We Exist: African Americans' Leisure Lifestyle in Maine is the fourth of the six-part digital exhibit series. The current exhibit explores the nuances of African American leisure participation, especially as it relates to Maine. In the exhibit, the focus on leisure activities among African Americans highlights some divergences from general perceptions that the public has of African Americans. The exhibit also helps to shed light on the processes behind the decisions that African Americans living across the United States and in Maine made when they decided to participate in leisure activities in the early 1900s and onward. The exhibit is comprised of photos, written transcripts, and audio interview clips from the Gerald E. Talbot and African American Collections. Although the focus in on leisure, the exhibit incorporates the Black family as a pillar of resistance and resilience as they wrestle internally within themselves, and with the public at large, about how to navigate engaging in areas and in activities that should seemingly be a right of all Americans.

African Americans are generally satisfied with their lives and find leisure to be an important part of a successful life.(1) Still there is seemingly a lack of literature that explore the relevance of race in African American leisure activities.(2, 3) Only recently recognized of their citizenship, African Americans sought to fashion their own recreational and commemorative destination befitting a "rising race." Wealthy African American families would purchase cottages and flock to leisure sites of historical significance and relax in the company of family and friends. In this sense, leisure was influential in its impact on class consciousness among African Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ultimately, the intersection of race, leisure, and memory, was essential to the progress and division of black political culture from Reconstruction through Jim Crow.(4)

However, African Americans also note incidents of racial discrimination which influenced the quality of their leisure experiences.(5 )And while African Americans are relatively free to go where they want to for leisure, they prefer more structure and less adventure than their white counterparts, a behavior associated with the legacy of racial oppression in the United States.(6) Very often African Americans will travel in groups and travel to "safe areas."(7, 8) More often than not they participate in leisure activities such as bus tours or group tours (a lot of these bus tours and group activities are connected to the church). Across the United States, separate public spaces were the law of the land and so Black-owned hotels flourished.9 Examples of such establishments are observed in the Cummings Guest House registry. There is some indication that African Americans raised after the 60s began to travel as individuals or as couples.(10)

African Americans began to "test the boundaries of racial etiquette that regulated public spaces."11, 12 The varying ways in which African Americans began to utilize leisure spaces challenged white historical narratives about African American leisure activities which at times led to contentions between African Americans and whites.(13, 14) While segregated pools, parks, and playgrounds of the 1950's and 1960's in the United States have been replaced by leisure areas without official racial restrictions, most African Americans continue to understand when they are welcome and when they are not welcome in most leisure areas. This feeling of being less welcome in leisure activities has a considerable impact on many African American leisure choices. (15, 16)

Notwithstanding, African Americans' own class and gender orientations, and economic interests, shape their leisure focuses as well.(17, 18) By and large, it was middle-class African Americans who could venture outside of their neighborhoods to participate in leisure activities that were perceived to be only engaged in by the white community. To the extent that we observe middle-class African Americans out in areas along with European Americans is an indication that African Americans' professional lifestyles, their behavior and attitudes, are more in common with their middle-class white counterparts than we are led to believe.(19) The clientele that patronized the Cummings Guest House included, but was not limited to, Black doctors, Black politicians, and Black musical entertainers, with the most famous musician being Duke Ellington.

However, Black women in higher socioeconomic groups experience leisure that is diverse. Their leisure participation involves participation in out-of-home activities, and takes place with a wider range of institutions.20, 21 For example, boat excursions and trips to vacation shops in different shops across Maine. On the other hand, Black men of different income and education levels participate in similar leisure preferences.22

Within the family, parents and children exchange information which have important consequences for the attitudes and behavior of both parents and children.23 Since most African American middle-class families "remain acutely aware of the social ills of racial discrimination in society" (p. 5), the value that African American children place on a particular leisure activity depends in large part on the value that their parents place upon a particular leisure activity.24 This is evident in Black families who vacation in Maine in family group activities or as Black fraternal orders in spaces where they were welcomed. Unlike their white fraternal orders, Black fraternal orders offered more opportunities for African Americans of diverse classes and gender to join.25

The exhibit consists of four focal galleries. The first gallery consists of photos which capture African Americans participating in various leisure activities in Maine. 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 fourth gallery consists of selected pages from the Cummings Guest House register.

The visual and audio presentations will help those with certain disabilities who are interested in the exhibit to actively participate. The use of multiple sources (photos; written word; audio) helps to support evidence regarding African Americans and their shared leisure interests. The quotes, audio clips, and selected Cummings Guest House register pages are representations of how some of Maine's Black residents, and African Americans outside of Maine who come to Maine to participate in leisure activities, talk about the type of leisure activities they participate in, and give insight into the process of selecting particular leisure activities.

We are indebted to our partners at the Osher Map Library (OML), University of Southern Maine (USM) Special Collections, and University of Southern Maine Libraries for their support in digitizing and building the exhibit site. This site was built by USM Libraries and Digital Projects staff. Mary Holt (Digital Projects Manager) administrator for the USM Digital Commons facilitated construction and organization of the exhibit; Paul Fuller (Digital Projects Associate) assisted with photographing many of the images featured in the exhibit;. 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) Zach Newell (Dean of Libraries and Learning), and Libby Bischof, Executive Director of the OML. Dr. Lance Gibbs 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 wide and diverse audience who may not have otherwise engage 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.

View Galleries
Cummings Guest House Register Excerpts

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Browse the Series 4: African Americans, Maine, and Leisure Activities Collections:

We Exist Series 4: Audio

We Exist Series 4: Cummings Guest House Register Excerpts

We Exist Series 4: Photos

We Exist Series 4: Quotes