Early in his presentation, Todd Little-Sebold shows a photo of a Ku Klux Klan gathering in 1926 that drew about 30,000. Mississippi? Georgia? Nope. Portland, Maine.
The photo often prompts the question, “You mean the Klan was active in progressive, hip Portland?” he said. “And the answer is yes.”
A closer examination of the photo shows what appear to be local chapters holding banners that read: Brunswick Klan, Augusta Klan, Rockland Klan.
People in Maine don’t think about issues of race very often, said Little-Sebold, a professor at Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic, during a presentation to staff at the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront.
“Just to put it in context, you could buy a farm for the price of one scalp.”
Though an influx of people from several African countries settling in Lewiston and Portland and Mexican immigrants settling in the Milbridge area have stirred conflict, Mainers still generally believe they were on the right side of the civil rights struggles of American-born people of African descent, and they and other New Englanders take pride in the fertile ground the abolitionist movement found here.
But it’s not quite that simple, says Little-Sebold.
“This kind of selective memory that is dominant in Maine is a very carefully constructed narrative essentially to erase important aspects of the region’s history,” he said, “and actually to use other parts of the country as a sort of whipping boy to make people in New England and particularly Maine feel good about their role in the Civil War.”
Maine, like other regions, is “rooted in genocide and racism,” he said, “white nationalism and white supremacy.”
And though politically left-leaning now, the state’s coastal and island communities are “some of the most insular and I would argue xenophobic in America. Islands in particular, with their attention to people ‘from away,’ are a particularly interesting case of the dominant white culture of Maine,” he said. “Few communities in America so closely attend to who really ‘belongs’ in a community.”
With just 3.3% of minority populations here, Maine is the whitest state in the U.S. Which prompted Little-Sebold, a history professor who has focused on race and racism, to ask himself why that is. A common answer he hears when he speaks on the topic is,
“Well, they just don’t want to come here,” or “It’s too cold.”
The actual explanation is not as benign, he suspects, because “Maine is almost exactly the same percentage of white today as it was in 1820. Maine has not changed.” And there is a need, he believes, to correct “the comfortable narrative” that we’re equitable and just.
Another KKK rally—billed as a Klan Clam Bake—held in 1924 in rural Trenton, near Ellsworth, drew 5,000-8,000. For Little-Sebold, based in Bar Harbor, that bit of history brings the racist legacy literally closer to home.
“Some of the people I meet in their 80s grew up in families where those people participated in this,” he said.
In 1924, some 600 people came out to hear a Klan speaker at a Bar Harbor Congregational church, introduced by its pastor.
Ultimately, Maine remained over 90 percent white as the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South transformed other parts of New England and the rest of the country because unions here refused entry to African-American workers and denied them work.
The treatment of the indigenous tribes of Maine and the rest of New England also may not be familiar to many of us. The Phips Proclamation of 1755 stated that any Massachusetts or Maine settler who brought in a Native-American alive to Boston’s general court would be paid 50 English pounds. If the native were killed and scalped, the settler would be paid 40 pounds. A female or male child under 12 delivered alive would fetch 25 pounds, and if killed and scalped, 20 pounds.
“Just to put it in context, you could buy a farm for the price of one scalp. Let that sink in,” Little-Sebold said.
One particularly horrific attack occurred at Walker Pond in Brooksville on the Blue Hill peninsula. At some point between 1690 and 1704, English militia from the Massachusetts Bay Colony captured a Native warrior, he said, and forced him to take them to his community on the shores of the pond. They attacked the community at dawn and killed all inhabitants except one.
“An entire Wabanaki community was wiped out,” he said. “Almost every early settler of Maine would have participated in raids like this and were essentially bounty hunters.”
Most Mainers are unaware of this history, and Little-Sebold has wondered why that is: “I think it’s a pretty profound question. Mainers love their history.”
Even into the 20th century, Native tribes faced institutional discrimination. Wabanaki were not Maine citizens until the 1920s, not allowed to vote in federal elections until 1957, and couldn’t vote in state elections until 1967.
Native and African-American students were not allowed to live in the dormitories at the University of Maine.
Back to the Portland Klan rally of 1926. Little-Sebold shows a detail from a photo in which a child is visible.
“We can’t forget that these are the grandparents of kids today who would be in their 20s or 30s.”