A Hidden Apology

Posted July 23, 2010, at 7:20 p.m.

The Maine Legislature did the right thing this spring by formally apologizing for the forcible removal of residents from Malaga Island a century ago. Letting the apology languish in an avalanche of end-of-session paperwork, however, renders it fairly meaningless. Now, lawmakers must finish their work, by making the apology widely known to the public and, more important, to the descendants of the Malaga Island residents.

The story of Malaga Island is not well-known. The small island off Phippsburg at the mouth of the New Meadows River is now uninhabited. But 100 years ago, it was home to a small community. Its residents were believed to be descended from Benjamin Darling, a freed slave who owned a nearby island.

The Malaga residents subsisted as fishermen and gardeners, and some worked on the mainland. Since they were poor, they sought public assistance, causing the town of Phippsburg to protest that the island actually belonged to Harpswell. The Legislature ruled that the island was Phippsburg’s responsibility, an action the town had repealed, leaving the state to take over subsidies for Malaga residents.

Intermarriage was common among the island’s black, white and mixed-race residents, and by the early 1900s, many Malaga residents were mentally and physically disabled.

With rich families increasingly interested in Maine’s islands as summer getaways, the state claimed ownership of Malaga Island for $400 in 1911. With an order from Gov. Frederick Plaisted, island residents were forcibly removed, with many sent to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, later known as the Pineland Center. Many died there. Malaga’s cemetery was dug up and the bones reburied on the school’s grounds in New Gloucester. Houses were destroyed and the island’s schoolhouse moved to another island.

Today the island is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which maintains it as a nature preserve.

Nearly a century after the eradication of Malaga Island residents, the Legislature on April 7 passed a resolution expressing “profound regret” about the Malaga injustices. However, as Colin Woodard writes in the current issue of Down East magazine, there was no advance notice of the resolution, no press conference, no invitations for those connected to the island to witness the historic apology.

The resolution’s author, Rep. Herb Adams, a historian and Portland Democrat, said he had to hurry to get it drafted and passed before the Legislature adjourned. Plus, he told Woodard, it was up to him to get the apology passed, not publicized.

Fortunately, the Legislature and Gov. John Baldacci have opportunities to rectify this. They, along with descendants, will be invited to an Aug. 1 ceremony on the island. That event, along with next year’s centennial of the Malaga deportations, would be perfect times to amplify the apology, making it much more meaningful.

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