June 18, 2018
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A sign of history: Proposal to salute black heritage by changing street names

By Kirsten Sylvain, Special to the BDN

PORTLAND — On Tuesday, Portland residents will have a chance to discuss a proposal to change the names of three streets in the St. John Valley neighborhood to reflect its black heritage.

The idea surfaced during Black History month in February and City Councilor David Marshall ran with it.

The proposal would change the names of A, C and D streets to represent the historic contributions of black residents in Portland’s West End.

“During the meeting, we will be able to discuss the idea and other ideas for recognizing the history of blacks in the St. John Valley Neighborhood,” said Marshall, who called for the meeting to gauge interest.

Feedback will determine next steps.

Leonard Cummings Sr. is chair of the executive committee for the Abyssinian Meeting House restoration project, tasked with restoring the historic house, a key contingent in the Underground Railroad. He is confident that the community will accept the proposal.

“What greater tribute to a group of people that has been left out of history? It is a way to acknowledge them and say thank you,” he said.

But not everyone in the neighborhood is on board. Charles Sollmann, 53, is a resident of A Street who plans to attend the meeting.

“I think it’s a horrible idea,” he said.

To Sollmann, it doesn’t matter what the name is changed to; it’s an inconvenience.

“I would have to pay fees to get my car registration and license updated,” he said. “I don’t have a big budget. I’m a dishwasher at Denny’s. Every penny counts.”

Despite the naysayers, Cliff Gallant, who suggested the idea in a column he wrote for the Portland Daily, believes the effort is worth it. “I think that this is a longstanding injustice that needs to be rectified,” he said.

As he sees it, the community will benefit in the long run from these changes. “My hope is that people will come to see that the greater good is served and that in the end these people will live on a street whose name has some significance.”

Cummings spoke of black families, such as the Cummingses, Hills and Richardsons, who have contributed to Portland’s history from 1789 to present. They helped develop the local economy, became some of the first elected black officials in the state, established the NAACP in Maine and New England and mingled with everyone from politicians to movie stars.

“The history, I think tells a story of its own,” Cummings said. “These people have never been acknowledged for their contributions publicly.”

The meeting will be at Portland’s Shalom House, 106 Gilman St., at 7 p.m. June 18.

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