By Kate Burch, Greater Portland Landmarks
Portland’s Black Communities have been shaping the city’s history, landscapes, and architecture for hundreds of years. In the 19th century, Portland was a stop on the Underground Railroad and was home to a thriving community of free Black people who worked the waterfront or the commercial railroads. Surviving historic buildings and resources tell the stories of these communities, with three neighborhoods on the Portland peninsula historically home to the city’s Black residents: Newbury Street near the Abyssinian Meeting House, Lafayette Street on Munjoy Hill, and in the St. John/Valley Street neighborhood in close proximity to Union Station (a major employer to many of the neighborhood’s African-American families).
These three neighborhoods are rapidly developing, endangering these historic sites. Preservation efforts have largely overlooked many modest dwellings and institutional buildings associated with Portland’s Black history, prompting Greater Portland Landmarks to name the city’s 19th Century African-American historic resources to our Places in Peril list in 2017. In recent years, the India Street Historic District and the landmark designation of the Abyssinian Meeting House have protected some of these resources, and the proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District would preserve many more buildings in a neighborhood where several houses built and occupied by this significant community have already been torn down.
Munjoy Hill’s African-American Community
From the mid-19th century onward, the neighborhood on Lafayette and Merrill Streets on Munjoy Hill was home to many of Portland’s Black residents, many of whom worked on Portland’s waterfront or in nearby businesses. While some Black residents were native to Maine, many were from Canada, particularly from Nova Scotia. Others came to Portland from Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Cape Verde, West Indies, Portugal, as well as from other states including North Carolina, Virginia, New York, Wisconsin, and Georgia. The men worked as seaman, waiters, janitors, stewards, cooks, clerks, hotel porters, house painters, and laborers. While many women stayed home, others worked as laundresses, seamstresses, housekeepers, and elevator operators. Here are just some of the stories of the historic homes associated with Portland’s Black community in the 19th and early 20th century:
46 (formerly 24) Lafayette Street
In 1850, William J. Jones purchased land from Harriet Peterson on Lafayette Street. Jones was born in the Danish West Indies and came to the United States through Canada. He became a naturalized citizen in 1892. His widow Mary [Elizabeth] remained in the house at 46 Lafayette Street after his death. She lived in the dwelling with two of their three sons, Alfred, Edward and Abraham. William J. Jones worked variously as a mariner (1850-1869), a cook (1875), a wood and coal dealer (1885-1888), and a laborer (1880, 1890-1891). In 1899, Mary deeded the house and two lots at 44 and 46 Lafayette Street to her son Abraham.
In 1922, the dwellings were purchased by George Simms, who had been living with his family at 46 Lafayette Street since 1916. George was a clergyman at the A.M.E. Zion Church on Monument Street. Born in Washington DC, he lived in the house with his wife Lila, a native of South Carolina, and four of their children.
19 Merrill Street (rear)
The one-and-a-half story home at 19 Merrill Street was the original dwelling on this lot, built before 1852. A second house was built sometime between 1884-1914 in front of this home at the sidewalk. The rear dwelling was for many years occupied by Eliza McKeel Franklin Nepean. Eliza McKeel (1812-1884) was the daughter of Margaret Freeman of Brunswick (born c1882). In 1844, Eliza married her first husband William Henry Franklin of Maryland, a seaman. By 1852 she was widowed and living at 19 Merrill Street. She married her second husband William Nepean in 1853. William was born in Pennsylvania and worked as a steward and shoemaker, dying in 1878. They adopted a daughter Mary Ellen and a son Labyron Wilmot, who worked for many years as a steward on a private car for the Maine Central Railroad.
Mary Nepean married first to James Scott, a paper hanger in Springfield, MA in 1873. She married her second husband Walter Richey in 1890, the same year he immigrated from Canada. When Eliza died of cancer in 1884, the house was willed to her two adoptive children, and Labyron Wilmot gave his half to his sister Mary and her husband Walter. Mary and Walter lived for many years in the rear dwelling on the lot. Mary died in 1916, and Walter remained at address until his death in 1933, when he left the properties to his second wife Evadora.
65 Merrill Street
The one-and-a-half story home at 65 Merrill Street on the corner of Quebec Street was for the residence of the Love Family for nearly 50 years. Willis Love (1849-1933) was born in Virginia. In 1870, at 20 years old, Willis was living in Alexandria, Virginia and working as a waiter. By 1875, he moved to Portland and worked variously as a painter and waiter while living on Washington Avenue. In 1879 he married his wife Eliza Taylor, a widow who was born in Nova Scotia, and they moved to a rental at 56 Merrill Street on Munjoy Hill. For several years in the 1880s Willis worked on Portland’s waterfront as a seaman. The couple had four children: Alice, Harry, Willis Ardon, and James. In 1904, while Willis was working as a janitor at the Elks Club on Congress Street, he and Eliza purchased the house at 65 Merrill Street from the Sparrow family. Willis worked as a janitor and waiter for the Elks Club for many years, as did his son Willis Ardon. Willis Ardon Love died at just age 31 in 1914 from Typhoid Fever. Willis and Eliza’s son Harry Love, an electrician, lived nearby at 49 Merrill Street with his family. After Willis’ death in 1933, his widow Eliza and their daughter Alice, a seamstress, remained in the house. After Alice’s death in 1950, her surviving brothers then sold the house to the DiBiase family.
48 Lafayette Street
David Augustus Dickson (1887-1979) came to the United States from Kingston, Jamaica, British West Indies in 1911 and became a naturalized citizen in 1916. His wife, Mary Daly (1890-1981), came to the US in 1914. The couple lived on Lafayette Street for several years before purchasing the home at 48 Lafayette Street in 1927 from Cressey & Allen, David’s employers.
David worked as a shipper, porter and janitor at Cressey & Allen’s retail music store on Congress Street for many years. He later worked as an elevator operator and janitor at Porteous, Mitchell and Braun Department Store and as a janitor at Associated Hospital Service of Maine. Mary worked as a maid and seamstress. In 1950 she was named Maine State Mother of the Year.
The Dicksons greatly valued education and all of their five children went onto higher education. The four eldest, Leon, Audley, David, and Frederick, graduated from Bowdoin College. Leon, Audley and Frederick became medical doctors. Their brother David received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard, served in World War II, and went onto spend 40 years in academia as a teacher and university president.
Their youngest and only daughter, Lois, was valedictorian of Portland High School in 1950 and class president of Radcliffe College. After her graduation from Radcliffe College she became the vice-president and director of the Washington DC office of the College Entrance Examination Board, where she designed and implemented the Pell Grant Program. She married Emmett J. Rice, an economist, and had two children E. John Rice Jr. and Susan E. Rice, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. National Security Advisor for President Obama.
Although David and Mary Dickson moved to 51 Melrose Street in the early 1960s, the Dickson family continued to own the house at 48 Lafayette Street until 1984.
30 Lafayette Street
The dwelling at 30 Lafayette Street appears to have been built for Samuel S. Libby, a blacksmith and machinist, in the late 1870s or early 1880s to replace an earlier dwelling. In 1929 the dwelling was purchased by Jennie McClean.
Jennie McClean (1872-1946) was the daughter of Joseph and Tempe Hill of Gardiner. Joseph Hill and his son Robert ran a grocery store in Gardiner for many years. Jennie married Joseph McClean of Augusta in 1899. Joseph McClean (1871-1945) came to the United States in 1884/5 from Barbados. At the time of their marriage, Joseph was a cook in a hotel and Jennie worked as a bookkeeper. Jennie and Joseph had two children that survived to adulthood, Helen and Vivian. When the couple divorced after 1920, Jennie and the girls moved to Portland, where Jennie worked as a dress maker. In 1929 she bought 30 Lafayette Street for $3,600. Both daughters lived in the house with their mother for a time and worked as elevator operators. Helen worked at Loring Short and Harmon’s book and stationary store at 474 Congress Street and Vivian worked across the street at 477 Congress Street in the Chapman Building.
24 Montreal Street
John W. Gaskill (1850-1904), was born in North Carolina, the son of Sylvester and Rebecca Gaskill of New Bern. In 1889 he married Charlotte (Lottie) Hill (1864-1922). John worked as a mariner, cook, and steward. In the early 20th century he owned two restaurants, one on Commercial Wharf and the other at 232 Federal Street. A few years earlier in 1900 he took out a mortgage for $650 and purchased land and a dwelling on Montreal Street from real estate developer Moses Gould. John and Charlotte had three children: Walter, John E., and Viola.
Walter H. Gaskill (1889-1966) served in World War I. Walter and his wife Geneva lived close to his childhood home for many years at 49 Lafayette Street. Geneva worked as an elevator operator in the Chapman Building at 477 Congress Street while Walter worked variously as a waiter, an auto mechanic, and in a local laundry.
John E. Gaskill (1892-1991) worked for Central Maine Power Company as a lineman. John and his wife Lulu, like his brother Walter, lived close to his childhood home for many years at 56 Lafayette Street.
Viola Gaskill (1894-1950) worked, like her sister-in-law, as an elevator operator in the Chapman Building at 477 Congress Street. She married in 1918 to Manuel Santos, a ship’s steward from Cape Verde. For several years the young couple and their son lived with Viola’s mother on Montreal Street. After Lottie’s death the couple continued to live in the family home.
Greater Portland Landmarks’ research on the history and buildings of Portland’s Black history is ongoing. For further reading, we recommend: Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People by H.H. Price and Gerald E. Talbot and Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster. We also continue to share histories and resources on our website and plan to share more here.