More than a century after a mixed race community of fishermen and laborers were forcibly evicted and virtually erased from Malaga Island off the coast of Phippsburg, their descendants now have a permanent memorial. Today Gov. Paul LePage joined those ancestors and their supporters at Pineland Cemetery for its dedication and to begin the healing of what many consider to be one of the darkest chapters in Maine’s history.
The memorial’s inscription lays out most of the facts: in 1912 a community of 45 black and white residents who married and lived together were ordered to give up the homes that they’d inhabited for 50 years. The state then took ownership of Malaga Island and their houses were burned to the ground. Caught up in a eugenics movement that considered them inferior, eight of the residents were sent to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded in New Gloucester. And, says Kate McBrien of the Maine Historical Society, even the bodies in the island cemetery were removed.
“What happened was after the state evicted the community, a few months later in November of 1912, the state went back and they exhumed all of the bodies on Malaga Island, combined 17 bodies into five caskets, as best we can tell and buried them here,” McBrien says.
“Here” is the Pineland Cemetery in New Gloucester not far from where the School for the Feeble Minded once stood. Now, in it’s place is a large granite memorial with the names of the people whose graves were relocated and the names of those who were confined to the school and died there.
“On behalf of the people of Maine, our apologies, to you and to your families, to your ancestors,” said Governor Paul LePage.
Speaking to a small crowd assembled for the memorial’s dedication, Gov. LePage once again apologized for the state’s treatment of the residents of Malaga Island, something he first did five years ago on the 100th anniversary of the eviction. Since then LePage has created a scholarship fund for descendants to attend college. And he led the effort to establish the memorial, which he says can never make up for what occurred.
“This memorial today only begins to make the healing of that terrible, terrible time,” he said.
For decades the story of Malaga Island was so buried that many descendants themselves weren’t aware of it. Others were ashamed to talk about it. But about 15 years ago research by historian Kate McBrien helped to connect the dots and the people. The descendants now refer to themselves as “cousins” and keep in touch through a Facebook group.
“The family now, they’re here today,” McBrien says. “And they’re happy to be here today.”
Marnie Darling Voter of Windham says she first discovered she was related to freed slave Benjamin Darling back in 1974. Her geneologist husband helped her uncover the truth about her heritage during a trip to the library.
“It might be one little black thread but it was in me,” Voter says. “It was a ‘We shall overcome’ moment. I was proud.”
As a white woman living in one of the whitest states in the country, Voter says she was proud, but she says her father forbade her to discuss their roots. Now she has several dozen other people to share it with, people like 13-year-old Jaymes Richardson, who came up from Connecticut with other family members to visit his ancestors’ graves in person. They were among the people in the cemetery whose bodies were exhumed.
“I hope that it makes them rest in peace and know that everything is going to be okay now, and that people are sorry for what happened and know about what happened,” Richardson says.
He says he was happy to see a headstone that showed his great great grandfather and grandmother buried together. Others say they are just happy to have a permanent reminder of why it’s necessary to speak out against injustice and not wait 100 years to do it.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.