A Quiet Apology
An ugly chapter in Maine history stumbles closer to closure.
- By: Colin Woodard
Image Courtesy Maine Historic Preservation Commission, detail
We’ve learned that earlier this year, Maine legislators took an important step to bringing closure to a very ugly chapter in the state’s history, endorsing an official expression of regret for the infamous Malaga Island deportations. Unfortunately, they failed to let anyone know they’d done so, resulting in one of the lowest-profile public apologies in memory. The ghosts of Malaga, it seems, have a hushing effect.
Malaga Island is a quiet place these days: forty-two acres of spruce trees and poison ivy just off the Phippsburg fishing hamlet of Sebasco, whose anchorage it helps shelter. The Maine Coast Heritage Trust maintains it as a nature preserve and allows local lobstermen to store their traps there. Apart from fishermen and the occasional recreational visitor, the island is left to itself.
But a century ago, Malaga hosted a year-round fishing community of forty, complete with a school and cemetery. Like most everyone else on the coast at the time, Malaga’s people had hardscrabble lives, piecing together an existence netting herring and cod, trapping lobsters, digging clams, and hiring themselves out as laborers at mainland farms or summer resorts. Unlike other communities, the islanders were black, white, or mixed race, a fact that also made Malaga a flashpoint for the state’s resident social Darwinists.
Between July 1911 and November 1912, the state of Maine purchased the island, incarcerated a fifth of its inhabitants on questionable grounds at the Maine School for the Feebleminded in New Gloucester, and forcibly evicted everyone else on the orders of Governor Frederick Plaisted. The islanders had dismantled and taken their homes with them, but state officials made certain no trace of the community remained. They took down and relocated the schoolhouse (to Louds Island in Muscongus Bay), then dug up the seventeen bodies in the cemetery, stuffed them into five group caskets, and unceremoniously buried them at the School for the Feebleminded (now Pineland Farms).
Several of the islanders spent the rest of their lives in this state-run mental institution; none of them had further children, which probably pleased the state legislators who would endorse a 1925 law aiming to “permanently improve the human race” by sterilizing the school’s patients. Many other islanders suffered terribly after losing their island. One woman died of exposure and starvation in her children’s arms aboard their makeshift houseboat; her grandchildren can testify to the multi-generational repercussions of such trauma.
For decades, few talked about what happened on Malaga. For descendents, there were the dual stigmas of “racial mixing” and “feeblemindedness,” made worse by the eugenicists’ racist assertion that there was a causal relationship between them. For the state, the episode was a dark blot on a relatively benign human rights record. (Another: Native Americans weren’t allowed to vote in state elections until 1967.) Many in Phippsburg wished the episode forgotten.
But over the past decade, Malaga has been getting more attention. There were articles in the Associated Press, Island Journal, and the Maine Sunday Telegram. A children’s book based on the tragedy — Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt — won a Newbery Honor in 2005. Descendents began speaking out, their stories carried to public radio listeners in Maine, New Hampshire, and beyond by Portland radio producer Rob Rosenthal’s documentary, Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold. The Maine State Museum is preparing a special exhibition for the centennial of the eviction, featuring artifacts dug up by University of Southern Maine archaeologists who’ve been working on the island.
As the story has come out in the open, there’s been increased pressure for the state to issue some sort of public apology for the incident. “This is a piece of human history that we should use to better understand ourselves and to ensure that we never repeat these horrific acts again,” says Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which has championed the cause.
Which brings us to the state of Maine’s bungled act of contrition.
On April 7, as the legislative session was coming to a close, Maine lawmakers passed a unanimous joint resolution enumerating the myriad injustices of the Malaga incident, expressing “profound regret” on behalf of the state’s citizenry, and pledging to rededicating themselves “to the ideals of tolerance, independence, and equality of all peoples.”
“What happened in 1912 was an act of state policy conducted personally by the governor of the state of Maine,” says Representative Herb Adams (D-Portland), who wrote the resolution. “So who better to acknowledge that it was wrong than the state itself in the form of the people’s legislature?”
But it was a strange sort of public apology, taking place without prior notice to descendents, the NAACP, or anyone else outside the legislature. Nobody connected to the island was present in the State House gallery. No press releases were issued. No notices appeared on the legislators’ Web pages, including that of Representative Adams. Those closest to the story learned about it by accident a week later, when Mr. Rosenthal came across the resolution and posted it to his documentary’s Facebook page. As for press coverage, well, you’re looking at it.
“All I can say is that I am glad, glad, glad it was done, but it really was a disservice to the descendents,” says Marilyn Darling Voter, whose great-great grandfather’s sisters, nieces, and nephews were among the deportees. “It’s one thing to write all that out and acknowledge it — we did this and that — but it’s like reading it with your back turned. There should have been somebody there to say ‘you are forgiven’ or ‘we accept’ or ‘about time.’ ”
“For nearly a hundred years this has been a fairly quiet story and it strikes me as a little bit odd that when the state recognizes officially that what it did a hundred years ago was inappropriate, it still continues to be quiet,” says Rosenthal, who directs the radio program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland.
Advanced publicity may have fallen casualty to the legislative rush, as lawmakers tried to finish the session early to save taxpayers’ money. Representative Adams, who is term-limited out of office this fall, says he had to dash to get the resolution in front of law-makers before the session ended, as many of its strongest supporters wouldn’t be returning next year. “If there’s any regret it’s that I wish I could have run the language by the descendents before it passed, but in the crunch there wasn’t time for it,” he says.
But that doesn’t explain the failure to publicize the event after the fact, or notify stakeholders that it had taken place. Speaking with Adams, it becomes clear that he didn’t see this as his responsibility; lawmakers get things passed, and it’s up to the press and others to spread the word. “It’s interesting which things attract attention and which ones don’t,” he says, noting that a resolution on the possible dangers of cell phone use stole the show that week. “Of course, you don’t make public policy to get attention.”
Others wonder why the legislature was left to act on its own when it was the governor’s office that drove the 1912 evictions. “Governor Baldacci has been in office for eight years,” says Ms. Talbot Ross. “Why hasn’t he done something or made a statement?”
We posed that very question to Baldacci’s office and, hours later, the governor sent us this statement: “The events surrounding Malaga were reprehensible and are a stain on Maine’s history. Since the early twentieth century, our state has grown into a tolerant and accepting community. But we must always remain vigilant against hatred and bigotry, and be cautious of the power of government to do harm. What happened in 1912 should serve as a reminder that we all have an obligation to stand up for our neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, their religion, their gender, or their sexual orientation.”
As for the descendents, the state may have another chance to get it right. Talbot Ross, who also heads the Portland-based Maine Freedom Trail, is planning a commemoration ceremony on the island for August 1 to which descendents, lawmakers, and the governor will be invited.
“Somebody should say, ‘good, at last those [Malaga] people were exonerated; they weren’t ragamuffins, they were people,’ ” says lobsterman Arthur Pierce, who keeps traps on Malaga, where his great-grandfather, James McKenney, was the leading fisherman in 1912. “When this was going on with the island of Malaga, there never could have been a black president. Whether or not we like the policies of this man or not doesn’t enter into it. Just the fact [Barack Obama] is president is proof the country’s changed a lot. That’s the way I see it.”
- By: Colin Woodard