“My great-great-grandfather came from Harlem. Do you know where that is?” This seemingly straightforward question cheerfully proclaimed by an animated Jerry Talbot, the senior statesman of the civil rights movement in Maine, starts one of his favorite stories.

To the predictable reply that it’s a well-known Manhattan neighborhood, Talbot shakes his head and gives a grin to clue his listener the joke is about to be on them. “No, it’s in Maine!” he quips, for the Harlem to which Talbot refers is the former name of China, a village halfway between Augusta and Waterville.

The story, and the way Talbot tells it, reveals two leading characteristics about the first and only black representative to have served in the Maine House of Representatives. One is a playful sense of humor; the other is an intense sense of pride in his family’s deep Maine roots.

Given it’s been 35 years since Talbot’s election to the first of three legislative terms, and it’s Black History Month, it’s fitting to now review the career and philosophy of one of Maine’s leading advocates of minority rights. Furthermore, Talbot and co-author Harriet Price recently released “Maine’s Visible Black History,” the first widely published chronicle on this subject.

Talbot was born in 1931 in Bangor, into a neighborhood that included several dozen black residents. Most, including his mother, came from emigré families from New Brunswick. Talbot’s father was descended from some of Maine’s earliest black settlers.

Talbot’s devotion to his hometown basketball team brought him to a Bangor vs. Portland high school basketball game, where he met – and in 1954 married – Anita Cummings, who was reared in a black neighborhood near Union Station in Portland’s West End.

He worked a variety of manual labor jobs after returning from three years in the Army, eventually following his father’s advice to “Get a trade.” He landed a position in the composition room of Portland’s Guy Gannett Publishing in 1966, a job he held for the next 25 years.

Through his early Portland years, Talbot was active in the local African Methodist Church, whose minister played a key role in recruiting his involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement. A few months after returning from the 1963 March on Washington D.C., Talbot was elected president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP.

While in this role, Talbot lobbied for Maine’s first Fair Housing Act, which was enacted in May 1965 – several months before Congress adopted a federal version.

Ironically, soon after enactment of these housing measures Talbot’s family endured housing discrimination, their most scarring encounter with racial bigotry. The episode also illustrated the limitations of the new laws. Though Talbot wound up hauling one of the offending landlords into court, the penalty was a mere $75 fine.

Meanwhile, Talbot was still denied access by other landlords, suffering instead through “two years to find a place to live that I wouldn’t put a rat in.”

He saved enough money by 1970 to purchase his own home instead. He and Anita still reside in this house in the Woodford section of Portland today.

In 1971, Talbot and others prevailed upon the GOP legislature and Democratic Gov. Kenneth Curtis to create the Maine Human Rights Commission, which created effective ways to combat the type of discrimination Talbot had experienced in the late 1960s.

By 1972, Talbot was drafted into running for the Legislature and won, to become the first black legislator in Maine. The same year, his wife Anita became the first black woman named to the Democratic state committee.

Two years later, Talbot rose to House Chair of the Human Resources Committee. He also engaged in a number of battles that made him one of the more active legislators of the 1970s. He fought to increase the minimum wage, ban discrimination against renters with children, ban the use of the word “nigger” as a geographic designation, and legalizing hitchhiking.

He did lose battles for gay rights and requiring high school guidance counselors to set up a job placement system.

After leaving the House, Talbot was named to the State Board of Education in 1980, and became its first black chair in 1984. In the late 1990s, he and Harriet Price started a seven-year project that resulted in the publication of Maine’s Visible Black History last year.

But when asked today to name the public official most helpful to the advancement of black causes in Maine over the last 40 years, Talbot names long-time House Speaker and now Sen. John Martin. “He’s the smartest guy up there. If I needed anything or had to find something, he knows his way there,” says Talbot.

When pushed to describe his greatest accomplishment, Talbot recounts his pride in raising his four daughters. His daughter Rachel is Portland’s Multicultural Affairs and Equal Opportunity director and head of the local NAACP, following her parents’ activist footsteps.

Talbot relates there are many more opportunities for blacks in Maine since Portland sent him to the Legislature in the 1972. He cites the growing number of blacks in key community positions across the state, including Maine’s first black judge being named in 2000.

And though there has been a noticeable lack of diversity in Maine’s House since his depature, Talbot says he still feels optimistic about the positive potential for blacks to help shape Maine’s future.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]

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