PORTLAND — When he graduated from high school in Bangor in 1952, Gerald Talbot said Tuesday, “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

He never imagined he would one day serve as the state’s first African American legislator or that his papers would form the nucleus of an African American Collection at the University of Southern Maine.

With a big smile and his wife at his side, Talbot watched Tuesday as university officials announced the creation of a new Talbot Fellowship and named its first recipient, Lance Gibbs, a sociology professor at USM.

Gerald and Anita Talbot attend a ceremony at the University of Southern Maine on Tuesday honoring him and announcing the creation of a Talbot Fellowship at the university. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

One of his daughters, state Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, a Portland Democrat, said her father, a history buff, filled their home with books and materials related to the African American experience.

Along the way, he faced down the Ku Klux Klan, co-authored a history of black Mainers, proposed the first gay rights measure in Maine and became a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.

Gibbs said he plans to use his fellowship to get Talbot’s collection digitized so that online researchers can use it from anywhere in the world. He also wants to insert more of the material into classroom curriculums and to collaborate with scholars in exploring what more can be done with Talbot’s papers.

A 1925 charter for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan chapter in Androscoggin County, Maine. Gerald E. Talbot Collection, African American Collection of Maine, Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine, University of Southern Maine Libraries

The collection includes everything from snapshots of black Mainers to the shackles used on enslaved blacks to an elaborate 1925 charter from the Androscoggin County KKK that includes the names of many of the racist group’s leaders at the time.

Glenn Cummings, president of USM, called Talbot “an amazing man” and hailed his 60-year career as a civil rights leader that included attendance at the March on Washington in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

He said the idea behind the new fellowship awarded to Gibbs is to have someone “take all of these documents and make them come alive.”

Gibbs said the charter, purchased three decades ago by Talbot in an auction of items found in abandoned safe-deposit boxes, is “a very popular artifact” among students who are surprised to learn that Maine’s KKK chapter in the 1920s was one of the biggest in America. It filled halls in Auburn in its heyday and burned at least a few crosses in Lewiston before drifting back into obscurity.

Gibbs called the charter “a very educational” tool for students to learn about how the anti-Catholic rhetoric of those days mirrors some of the language used against African Americans later. It’s eye-opening for students, Gibbs said.

Talbot, 87, said he had a couple of run-ins with the KKK in Maine during his years traveling the state to promote civil rights.

Gerald Talbot, 87, the first African American state legislator in Maine, attended a University of Southern Maine ceremony Tuesday to announce the creation of a Talbot Fellowship to work with a collection of papers and artifacts Talbot donated in 1995. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

One time, he said, five guys showed up while he was watering in his yard.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Talbot said he asked one before, without even thinking about it, he reached out and yanked off the white hood that one wore over his head.

He said he only remembers that the guy had a red beard and that the group complained he shouldn’t have pulled off the covering.

Another time, Talbot said, he was in Bethel and a group of KKK supporters lined the back of a hall where he spoke.

When he left the place, Talbot said, a big fellow from the KKK roared up to him on a motorcycle and “gave me a lot of lip.”

Talbot said he stood his ground.

“Listen, let me tell you something,” Talbot recalled saying to the man. “If you’ve got anything to say to me, you come to my house” and he’d be happy to talk. He gave the fellow his address in Portland, but that was the last he saw of the guy.

He said his wife, Anita, wasn’t thrilled about him mentioning the address.

Talbot donated his papers and artifacts to the college in 1995, one of several prominent collections at USM that also includes the Osher Map Library in the Glickman Family Library on the college’s Portland campus and the Franco American Collection in Lewiston.

Gibbs said it is “a bit overwhelming” to be named the first Talbot Fellow. He called it both humbling and touching.

He said he told Talbot about his plans for the three-year position.

“He just smiled with me,” Gibbs said.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland spoke Tuesday about her father during a ceremony at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Ross said it means a lot to the family, who were always surrounded by the documents and books that Talbot relied on to capture the stories of the African American people whose lives are still too often hidden.

She said her father “was curious about it all” and could be found piling some of it into a Volkswagen van back in the day to travel around the state speaking and exhibiting about the long but usually ignored history of African Americans in Maine.

Talbot is an eighth-generation Mainer so family stories helped lay the foundation for his life’s work as “a proud black man” who drew strength from his roots, Ross said.

Ross pointed out that the Glickman Library was created in 1997 in a building that once housed a supply company — a place where her father once worked as a janitor.

“My father cleaned the first two floors of this building,” she said. “I remember dusting downstairs while he mopped the floors.”

For “a black child from Carroll Street in Bangor,” Ross said, her father came a long way, his life evidence that every child can contribute mightily and become “part of a living history” whose impact will shape the future in part because of the collection he left behind.

Cummings, a former Maine House speaker, told Talbot, “Thank you for all the work you’ve done to make Maine a better place.”


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