The third-oldest remaining black church in the country is being resurrected by an intrepid group of Portlanders, reviving a hist
- By: Monica Wood
- Photography by: Jeff Scher
First miracle: the thing is still standing. Built in Portland by a group of free black citizens tired of being relegated to the gallery of local churches, the Abyssinian Meeting House began its long, hazardous life in 1828.
On Sundays, the building served as an unaffiliated church whose membership included leaders in the Underground Railroad, former slaves, fiery preachers, and abolitionists. On weekdays it housed one of the first public schools for African-American children in the country; and on most evenings, for nearly a hundred years, its congregation flocked here for lectures, concerts, and socials. During the Great Fire of 1866, the building’s sturdy bones and light-filled interior escaped certain doom when the original builder’s son, a Portland firefighter, soaked the roof with wet blankets as the rest of the block burned to ash. After that, the church at the foot of Munjoy Hill served another half century as a storied gathering place for the city’s black community.
Death by inferno doesn’t seem half-bad, compared with the structure’s more modern near-miss. Beginning in the 1920s, long before claiming its rightful spot on the National Register of Historic Places, the Abyssinian endured a second incarnation as a tenement. Indecorously chopped into soulless apartments, the third-oldest surviving African-American church in the country all but perished of urban neglect, devolving over the course of the twentieth century into a derelict eyesore that the city finally seized over unpaid taxes.
There it sat, an ignoble monument to a history that nobody, apparently, knew or cared much about. Nobody, that is, until Deborah Cummings Khadraoui, a seventh-generation Mainer back in Portland to visit her parents, drove over to Newbury Street to eye the building she’d read about in a Portland Press Herald editorial. The boarded-up windows and glass-strewn perimeter filled her with equal parts hope and dismay. At the time, in the mid-nineties, she had a young daughter and a job in Atlanta, but the call of the Meeting House was still audible after 170 years. Oh, Debbie, she remembers saying to herself. Here we go. She never returned to Atlanta. That was miracle number two.
A freelance consultant in economic and community development, Khadraoui knew how to get a ball rolling. Plus, she had a secret weapon: Her dad, Leonard Cummings, a prominent name among Maine’s black leadership. “My father is my father,” she says, and so Cummings helped his daughter assemble the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House, packing it with Munjoy Hill neighbors, a couple of historians, interested friends, and members of their own large, close family. After a couple of wrangling years persuading the state to officially recognize the building’s historic value, the committee bought the building back from the City of Portland for the symbolic sum of $250 — the price of the original lot.
The committee began its sentimental journey close to home, engaging a youth group to rake away truckloads of debris, asking the city to make an Abyssinian Week proclamation, and connecting with local and state preservation groups. From there, they extended their reach all the way to the National Park Service, which listed the Abyssinian Meeting House as the first officially recognized Underground Railroad site in Maine. A financial boost from the 1772 Foundation literally raised the roof, allowing the committee to hire preservation contractors who salvaged the original king-post trusses where they could and replicated the rest.
The result of that first phase of renovation is a weather-tight roof over a handsome, muscular truss system that makes you want to sing hallelujah. A vaulted plaster ceiling (a copy of the original) will eventually follow. “We’ve done everything ourselves,” says Leonard Cummings, a robust septuagenarian who serves as the committee’s chair. He sounds both proud and weary of the committee’s pay-as-you-go strategy. “A nickel at a time. A dollar at a time. And with every grant and donation, we’ve kept people working.” In other words, one of the goals of phase one was to reveal the project as a boon to the city.
“Because of the building’s condition, it used to be a harder sell,” says committee treasurer David Paul, who has shared a warm, longstanding friendship with Cummings. Paul grew up on Munjoy Hill and loves history in all its forms, including his own Irish-immigrant heritage. In this joint effort the men seem to have juiced each other’s already fervent enthusiasms.
“People want to know where the money’s going,” Paul says, “and you can see it now.” The completed roof system takes his imagination back to a nineteenth-century neighborhood filled not only with free blacks, but with Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants who composed the city’s bustling East End. “This history belongs to all of us,” he enthuses. “You can’t come in here now and not get a feeling.”
Part of that “feeling” is simple surprise. The existence of a vibrant black community in one of the northern-most reaches of pre-Civil War America comes as a revelation even to the locals. And yet, Portland’s black families go back deep into the eighteenth century, according to Gregory Farmer, a historian working with the committee.
“Portland was a port of call, and lots of black mariners stayed on,” he says. Some came from places as near as Canada and as far as the West Indies and Cape Verde, settling in with the resident population of black citizens, some of whom descended from original colonists. “It was an enclave of about six hundred people,” Farmer explains, “large enough to be a real presence in the city.” Most were in the maritime trades — dockhands, hack drivers, cart haulers. The waterfront was much closer then (much of the current Old Port was built over fill), and “from the water you could see the meeting house, visible to any black passenger — legal or not — coming into port.”
The Abyssinian’s heyday coincided with a raging debate on slavery. Frederick Douglass knew the ministers associated with the meeting house and probably spoke here himself. William Lloyd Garrison also took to the pulpit, preaching the gospel of abolition. As a result, the Abyssinian’s congregants harbored fugitive slaves, exploiting their merciful proximity to departing ships in one direction, and in the other, a Grand Trunk station where trains departed for Canada. A Portland Inquirer article from 1850, reporting on a recent meeting, captures the congregation’s righteous passion: “The colored people are determined to resist to a man — and woman too — any attempt to take a fellow-being back to bondage… Not a man is to be taken from Portland. Our motto is ‘Liberty or Death!’ ”
Below the sparkling new rooftop lies a boarded-up work in progress, the walls and floors now stripped to the skin. Arron Sturgis of Preservation Timber Framing undertook this scrupulous unmasking, exposing a handsome, solid, timber-frame structure “overbuilt” by talented craftsmen. At first, says Sturgis, the building seemed such a wreck, “most contractors would have gutted it. Instead, we peeled it like an onion.” Chunks of hacked-up tie beams — a souvenir from the ham-handed tenement renovation — showed up in other parts of the building, puzzle pieces waiting to be reassembled. Sturgis admires the cohesive structure that survived its midlife ravaging. “They threw nothing away in the Depression era, lucky for us. The restoration will require far less conjecture than we expected.” Existing wall studs show the form of the massive original windows, but other clues are far less obvious: a thread caught in an original carpet tack, traces of paint, a drawing gouged into wood by a long-gone schoolchild, bits of surviving roof trim. Farmer and Sturgis match these clues with church records, news articles, sketches, and maps of the time to recreate both a physical and social picture of the building. The pews turned up in a West Paris church, and because they’d been uniquely painted by the church’s individual families, Farmer believes they eventually can be matched to specific congregants. “This building wants to be restored,” Sturgis adds. “It can’t wait to tell its story.”
The story will cost well over a million dollars and require an endowment of another two million to fulfill the committee’s dream of a museum and cultural center that will attract not only tourists but every teacher and schoolchild within reach. “I don’t want another black-history month to go by without this building being part of it,” says Pamela Cummings, Khadraoui’s sister, currently volunteering as executive director. “I’ve got a committee of educators ready to go into the schools and make history personal and local. That building should be a source of pride.”
All preservation is local, goes the well-worn adage of the heritage biz. But Trevor Johnson, a historian from the 1772 Foundation, sees something notably non-parochial in this grassroots committee: its use of technology, for starters — a notorious stumbling block for similar groups, which tend to attract older members inexperienced with cyberspace. You can find a well-crafted video about the project on YouTube, and Cummings is especially jazzed over the Abyssinian’s inclusion in a new Google Earth “heritage map” assembled by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But the committee’s most distinguishing feature, Johnson notes, is its ability to raise money by making partnerships, “something hometown committees don’t usually know how to do.” Indeed, not only has the group connected strongly with local and national foundations, it has garnered interest from the corporate world, most recently from Maine-based Wright Express. “We support all kinds of community projects,” says CEO Michael Dubyak, “but there is something especially satisfying about resurrecting a forgotten piece of African-American history that took place right here in Portland.”
At a recent committee meeting, Cummings shows up in a jacket and tie, full of new plans. He demonstrates how Google Earth users can “fly” to African-American historic sites, from Paul Robeson’s childhood home in Philly, to the Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, to — ta dah! — the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, Maine. At each stop, browsers can study still shots or street-view images and discover nearby historic places that might inspire a day trip to cities or neighborhoods they might otherwise overlook. This kind of day-tripping is called “heritage tourism,” a good fit for a city the size of Portland, which claims several sites on the Freedom Trail that would dovetail nicely with a visit to the Abyssinian. “We’re going to start staffing the building to coincide with the tour boats coming in,” Cummings announces to a group of board members and volunteers.
“And we can partner up with other businesses to make package deals,” he adds, really lighting up now, describing meeting house visits that might include a hotel deal, a discounted restaurant meal, and a tour of a local brewery.
The committee currently holds regular open houses, where the curious can walk through the building, read information panels, ogle the roof system, examine notches in the floor left by the original pews. In fact, the committee will open the building to an interested party at almost any time, for there is a third miracle unfolding here, a push to acknowledge the state of Maine’s role in the story of black America. As the restoration of the Abyssinian Meeting House unfolds, so does the investigation of its congregation: a group of ordinary mariners, laborers, artisans, teachers, students, shopkeepers, customers. A planned archeological dig in the cellar — a contractor’s nightmare that features a flowing spring from which congregants once bottled water — should unearth more nuggets in an ever-brightening trove.
“We are the three p’s,” Cummings says, to adjourn the meeting. “Patience, persistence, and perseverance.”
“Four p’s,” adds a voice from the group. “Prayer.”
To which the building, awaiting its full reflowering, says: “Amen.”
IF YOU GO
The Abyssinian Meeting House is located at 73 Newbury Street in Portland. It is not currently open to the public, though the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House holds regular open houses and will arrange private tours with prior notice. 207-829-4995. www.abyme.org
- By: Monica Wood
- Photography by: Jeff Scher