Candace Kanes spoke at the Androscoggin Historical Society in Auburn on Tuesday night about Lewiston’s first generation of African-Americans who were sent here by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

AUBURN — Local historian Candace Kanes presented her findings Tuesday night about a small community of freed slaves who made Lewiston their home in 1866.

Doug Hodgkin, president of the Androscoggin Historical Society, was happy with the turnout at the Androscoggin Historical Building.

“It’s standing-room only, and we brought out all of our extra chairs,” he said. 

Kanes started her research almost four years ago on the Civil War, branching into the Emancipation, which eventually led her to communities of freed slaves in Maine. 

“My intention is to look at the whole state, but the Lewiston Evening Journal is a fabulous newspaper resource,” Kanes said. All of the papers from 1866 to the 1930s are archived on Google newspapers. “And it’s a great piece of my piece to delve into.” 

She said that after the Civil War, many ex-slaves made their way to the Freedmen’s Bureau headquarters in Washington D.C.

Bureau Commissioner Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds offered employment contracts to several African-American men whom he’d met during the war. 

Kanes said she found a lot of her information from newspaper archives, namely the Lewiston Evening Journal (now the Sun Journal), which ran ample features on African-American families. 

One man, Robert Creart, was written about a number of times. His obituary, which appeared in the paper on Sept. 27, 1929, read, “Robert Creart, one of Lewiston’s best-known colored residents succumbs to long illness.”

She talked about how most of the families in the African-American community were connected through marriage, through their children’s marriages and by their employers.

“It’s a tangled web of biographies and newspaper reports,” Kanes said. 

Most of the former slaves who came to Maine worked on farms or took other hard labor jobs, and many of the women worked as maids. A couple of men were able to make it as blacksmiths.

Kanes’ findings gave the sense that this new community was accepted by most of the white people in Lewiston, although the Irish immigrants didn’t like them, and one report said that a group of Irishmen threw stones at one the African-Americans.

Kanes said the language points to a feeling that they were “well-liked and well-integrated. It’s condescending but not negative.”

Kanes shared some personal stories of the African-American community, including Robert Wilson and Armstead Johnson.

“Robert Wilson was born in South Carolina and worked at a stove store in Lewiston. In 1876 he married Kate Miller, daughter of Abby Thornton, another former slave who came to Lewiston in 1866,” Kanes said.

“Armstead Johnson worked as a hostler in 1870 and in 1871 he married another former slave, Susan Cole, who was born in Virginia,” Kanes said. “She did washing and ironing. She could read and he could not. He owned his own house at 521 Main St.”

“What was life like for the former slaves in Lewiston?” Kanes asked. “It’s a challenge to piece it together. I’ve looked at all kinds of records. Things like probate and census records give you some sense of where people lived, and marriage records show some kinds of relationships.” 

“If you can’t read and write, you don’t leave your own records, you don’t leave your own stories. With the newspaper stories, at least you get something that might be close to their perspective,” Kanes said.

“The newly freed slaves created their own community, but with a fairly small population to begin with,” Kanes said. “They did draw from other communities nearby, like Leeds and Monmouth. I’m sure there were lots of connections we’ll never know about.”

She has been planning to continue her research on freed slaves in Maine and the Civil War for quite a long time. 

“It’s just so interesting once you get into it,” she said of her research. 

Those who would like to offer any pertinent information about Kanes’ work may contact her by email at [email protected]

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