Friday, June 19, was Juneteenth, a day of celebration for many African Americans across the country. As celebrations for Juneteenth and protests against police brutality spread across the country, the issues and demands of protestors can seem distant and removed from small, rural, mostly white communities here in Maine. But Juneteenth is not just a day of celebration; it is also a day of reckoning — of recognizing, acknowledging and, hopefully, repairing some of the harm that has come from the legacy of slavery, as well as the racist policies that still exist today.

We all have a part to play in this reckoning; even small, rural Maine towns.

Laura Fralich

Part of the reason that these issues can seem removed is because of the systematic erasure and suppression of Black history and narratives. In New Gloucester, where I grew up and live now, this suppression of history takes the form of the legacy of Malaga Island and former residents of the island who are buried at the Pineland cemetery after their forced removal and institutionalization at the Maine Home for the Feeble-Minded in 1912.

Malaga Island was home to mixed-race community of freed slaves and whites who lived there for more than 50 years. With the rise of tourism in Maine and the eugenics movement nationally, coastal Maine Islands became more desirable and the residents of Malaga Island were seen as a hindrance to tourism and a degenerate population that needed assistance from the state. This narrative was repeated many times in the press with such headlines as  “Homeless Island of Beautiful Casco Bay — Its Shiftless Population of Half-breed Blacks and Whites and His Royal Highness, King McKenney” and “Queer Folk of the Maine Coast.”

On a visit to the island in 1911, Gov. Frederick Plaisted remarked that “the best plan would be to burn down the shacks with all their filth. Certainly the conditions are not creditable to our state, and we ought not to have such things near our front door, and I do not think that a like condition can be found in Maine, although there are some pretty bad localities elsewhere.” (Brunswick Times Record, July 21, 1911).

In 1912, the residents were told they must vacate the island or be evicted. Forty residents left the island before they could be evicted, with no alternative housing or supports. Later that year the family of Jacob and Abbie Marks, including their four children and grandson, were committed to the Maine Home for the Feeble-Minded where many of them lived until their death. The graves of 17 residents from Malaga Island were also dug up and consolidated to five graves and buried in the Pineland cemetery.

While this history can still seem distant and removed, it is striking to think that Lottie Marks, the 17-year-old daughter who was committed to the Maine Home for the Feeble Minded and was later released, lived to be 103 and died in 1997.

After being evicted, the other former residents faced discrimination and slander. The word Malagite became a racial slur used on the Maine coast and many descendants denied their connection and heritage out of shame and ridicule. They have just recently started to speak out about their painful heritage and connect with other descendants.

Growing up in New Gloucester, I never learned this story in public school and was unaware of our town’s role in this shameful and racist history. Our exposure to Black history was limited to token units on the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. We were never forced to examine how we, as white people, might be perpetuating racist ideas and institutions with our silence and ignorance.

In a town without a police force of its own and few people of color,  it can feel easy to dismiss issues of race and police brutality. But it is our white privilege and acceptance of the status quo that allows us to stay silent and, in turn, complicit in the face of the racism all around us and woven throughout our history.

We must use this opportunity to do better: to educate ourselves and our children about the history of our town and our state, to examine our own privilege and it’s detrimental impact and work to repair the harm that has been done by our actions and inactions.

Laura Fralich is a high school social studies teacher who lives in New Gloucester.

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