"We Exist: Stories of African American Education and Employment in Maine" is the fifth of a six-part series exhibit to be housed at the University of Southern Maine’s Glickman Library andon the University of Southern Maine’s Digital Commons. 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 education and employment with specific interests in the educational journeys of Black residents and the evolution of the types of jobs that Black residents were able to obtain. The exhibit focuses on 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 Collection and African American Collection.

The stories of the journeys of Black residents in Maine regarding their education and employment have at times been denied, altered, or just completely omitted from existing literature. [1] Through their educational and employment efforts, Black Maine residents have helped to build the state of Maine. Education and employment are intertwined; in general, people with higher levels of education have better job prospects, as education prepares you for employment so you can perform the duties that job requires. [2] However, historically, Black residents were not afforded the opportunities necessary to complete the education needed for them to occupy various occupations. Maine’s Black residents would fill jobs that were aligned to their race as education was not always a right for Black residents. And when education opportunities were granted to Black residents, some educational opportunities were limited. [3, 4]

The history of public education in Maine prior to 1820 belongs to the educational history of Massachusetts. The several enactments of the General Court of Massachusetts relating to maintaining public schools were of course applicable to the towns existing in the district of Maine. [5] In 1827 Maine had one of only ten Black schools in the United States, aptly named the "Colored School". When Black children began attending schools with white students, white parents resisted. But even after the closure of the Colored School, being a Black student in Maine usually meant having the only Black person in the classroom. The same was observed for attendance in a college or university. Black students who graduated from educational institutions were usually the first and were celebrated whenever they returned to the state. [6] With that being said, a lot of these "firsts" (Black students who were in the colleges and universities) were not able to complete their formal education in a college or university in the state of Maine due to practices and policies that prevented them from completing certain degree programs. For example, student-teaching was a prerequisite to being hired as a teacher in Maine schools, but there was a practice of denying Black Maine residents who were education students at the University of Maine in Orono (UMO) the opportunity to student-teach. Black students then had to leave Maine to attend other universities outside of the state, such as Texas, to complete their studies and complete their degrees. [7] Overtime, Maine Black residents have occupied some of the highest employment positions in Maine and across the United States. [8, 9] Many free Black people who settled in Maine, or who came to Maine during colonial days, arrived as seamen, working on ships that came into Portland and other ports, and as stevedores along the waterfront. The one secure employment for Black women was in the area of domestic work – similar work aligned to Black women during plantation slavery. [10]

By the end of the 19th century, many more occupations were represented. Black people in Maine had their own small businesses, worked for railroads, were teamsters or drivers, worked in service occupations, public accommodations, or restaurants. Other Black Maine residents worked as laborers, woodsmen, or firefighters. [11] Just like in the classrooms, in some of these jobs, Black residents were usually the only Black employee, or the first Black employee, in the employment position. [12] Two such notable figures were Clifford "Kippy" Richardson and Gerald E. Talbot. Kippy Richardson was the first Black person to be elected to a municipal office in Portland and to the council in the twentieth century. Gerald Talbot became the first Black person elected to the Maine legislature. [13]

It is noteworthy that Black Maine residents were heavily involved in jobs that were attached to the United States military. In spite of racial segregation, patriotism was primary. Talbot explains that "Blacks in Maine have served in every war, from the Wabanaki and English wars to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars." [14] There was a large influx of Black servicemen in the 1900s with Maine Black residents even being a part of the heralded Tuskegee Airmen. [15, 16] The jobs that were aligned to the military were not only necessarily segregated by gender. The Black welders at the New England Ship Building Corporation were comprised of Black men and women. [17] With this in mind, "We Exist" as an informational attempt, and a research tool, provides details into the education and employment endeavor through the lens of Maine’s Black residents. We hope that the photos, written word, and audio in these galleries will lead patrons to reflect on how education and employment practices in Maine have helped to shape the current movement of Maine’s Black inhabitants. The exhibit consists of three focal galleries. The first gallery consists of photos which capture Black inhabitants in Maine in educational and employment environments. At times, a singular artifact will capture both phenomena as education and employment are enmeshed with each other. The second and third galleries consist of interview quotes and selected audio recording clips from ""Home Is Where I Make It": African American Community and Activism in Greater Portland, Maine" oral history project. The purpose of utilizing these three means of highlighting the education and employment journeys of Maine’s Black residents is first and foremost, to stimulate the visual and audio senses. Next, using the three techniques of presenting information on Maine’s Black inhabitant’s offers a way of triangulation; using multiple sources to confirm the observable results about education and employment in Black residents in Maine. The quotes and audio clips are representations of the pathways that Maine’s Black residents have taken as regards education and employment, and the importance of education and employment in the lives of Maine’s Black residents and their families, including the formal and informal ways in which education taught to them. 

We are indebted to our partners at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education (OML), University of Southern Maine Special Collections, and University of Southern Maine Libraries & Learning Digital Projects for their support in digitizing and building the exhibit site. This site was built by USM Libraries Digital Projects staff members: Mary Holt (Digital Projects Manager, Administrator of the USM Digital Commons) built this site, created supplemental materials, and edited audio clips; Paul Fuller (Digital Projects Associate) assisted with construction and organization of the exhibit, both online and on the Portland campus; Megan Mac Gregor (Instruction and Outreach Librarian with USM Libraries & Learning) assisted with construction and organization of the physical exhibit; Jill Piekut Roy (Special Collections Libraria, USM Special Collections) assisted with selecting artifacts from the Talbot Collection and the wider African American Collections.

 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 face-to-face and 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.


Browse the Series 5: African American Education and Employment in Maine Collections:

African American Education Photos

African American Employment Photos

Audio Clips