BANGOR, Maine — At age 81, Lloyd George has a twinkling smile, an irrepressibly cheerful nature and a rich baritone voice. These are some of the fruits of a long life, well-lived as a member of Bangor’s small but historic and well-established black community — a community he helped build and is proud to uphold.
Modest by nature and habit, George has compelling stories to tell about his family’s long presence in Bangor, his experience as a person of color growing up here in the 1940s and 1950s, the hard-won success of his construction business and the pride he feels in his own children.
But his eyes light up the brightest when he talks about his love of music, which is grounded in his religious life and includes decades of experience as a popular singer in the Bangor area for weddings and funerals.
“I’ve sung in every Protestant church in the cities of Bangor and Brewer,” he said with pride in his voice. “I’ve sung at weddings and funerals for more than 50 years, and I’ve loved every minute of it. It was always an honor.”
In fact, George has been singing since he was about 10 years old, when as a third-grader at Fairmount School he was repeatedly singled out for solos in school pageants.
“The music teacher was Mrs. Johnson,” he said. “I’ll never forget her. She would always pick me out to sing the solos, so when the other kids went home after school to play, I would stay after school and practice singing with her. Didn’t I hate that!”
From the Fairmount School, George went on to the Fifth Street Junior High School. His shop teacher, who also taught Sunday school at First Christian Church on Hammond Street, persuaded him to join the youth choir there.
“The director took a liking to me, and she liked my voice,” George said, and pretty soon he was singing solos with the adult choir, even though his own family attended St. John’s Episcopal Church on French Street.
After that, still a junior high student, he led the singing at tent revivals — large gatherings that drew hundreds of families from Protestant congregations throughout the area for a full day of praise, song, prayer and food.
“They’d prop me up there next to the guy with the accordion,” George recalled. “We’d sing hymns like ‘Precious Lord,’ ‘Beyond the Sunset’ and ‘Oh Glorious Morning.’ They’d break for lunch; every family brought a big picnic basket, and everyone shared their food.
“It wasn’t long before people started asking me to sing at their weddings,” he said. “Most people wanted a popular song before the bride came in and a Christian song just before they exchanged rings.
“I’ve sung ‘Ave Maria’ a thousand times,” he said with a laugh.
George sang the theme from the popular movie “Love Story” at Valerie Kitchen’s 1971 wedding at the Hammond Street Congregational Church.
“He was a friend of the family, and he had done a lot of carpentry work for my parents,” Kitchen said. “I was thrilled to have him sing at my wedding.”
Recently divorced after 42 years, Kitchen is still active with the Hammond Street church and points out that George leads a regular “hymn sing” there, as he has done for the past 20 years and more.
“He always does a great job,” she said. “He still has that fabulous voice.”
George also developed a niche as a singer at area funeral services.
“Back then, it was common to have a singer,” he said. “Now people just bring a CD.”
George often was acquainted with the deceased, said Gary Smith, 79, president of the Brookings-Smith Funeral Home in Bangor.
“He would usually say something about how he knew the family, to establish a personal connection before he sang,” Smith recalled. “There used to be a singer at just about every funeral. We’ve just come through a period of about 20 years with no singers, but now it’s coming back in vogue.”
George said singing at funerals never made him sad.
“It has meaning,” he said. “When you sing to the person who died and their family, it creates a connection between you, God and the person who has died. It’s a very big honor.”
George’s father, Edson, was born in England and emigrated with his family to Montreal and then to Bangor when he was just a child. There, the family joined a community of perhaps 75 black families, most of whom had followed the same route from Great Britain to Canada, then crossed the border into Maine.
“They worked their way across the ocean on ships or as stowaways,” George said.
Many worked as miners in Fredericton and Campbellton before coming to Maine with the timber industry.
“They’d spend all winter cutting trees, then get on the log drives in the spring and ride the rivers down to Bangor,” he said. “Bangor is where they got paid.”
Eventually, families of color settled permanently in Bangor, joining other immigrant groups in the rich, multicultural melting-pot that characterized the city by the mid-1800s. By the time the Geroge family arrived, the black community was well-established in Bangor and Brewer. They settled in Holden.
George was born in 1934, at a hospital in Brewer that is no longer in existence. One of seven siblings, he lived with his family in Holden until he was 3, when the family moved to the Fairmount neighborhood of Bangor.
When he was growing up, he recalled, it was not uncommon for other children to call him names, including, he said, “the ‘n’ word.”
“Then I had to fight them,” he said. “After I beat you up, then I can command your respect.”
After establishing that respect, he said, he generally became fast friends with children of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, an approach that would work for him throughout his life.
When he was 33, George married his wife, Inez, who came from Roxbury, Massachusetts. The couple built a house and moved to Glenburn, where they still live. They have raised three children: their daughters, Linette and Stacy, who live and work in the Bangor area, and their son, Nathan, who teaches high school English in Florida.
George grew up working alongside his father.
“My dad worked days at Webber Motors on Hammond Street, and in the evenings, he did gardening and general repairwork, including building and repairing house foundations,” he said.
At the time, many homes were built on posts and lacked solid foundations.
“Dad would work his regular job, and when he came home, us kids would bring the shovels and pickaxes and meet him at the job site,” he said, “And then we’d have fun digging out the cellar.”
Over time, George developed skill in the construction trades, with a special expertise in excavation, drainage, masonry and similar jobs. In 1964, he established the Lloyd E. George Construction Co., bidding and winning jobs from Presque Isle to York.
He is quick to acknowledge that affirmative action policies at the state and federal levels helped him win some of these jobs. But that didn’t mean that Maine work crews or project managers in the 1960s and 1970s were open to working with a black contractor.
In the face of blatant discrimination, such as refusing to sell him materials or provide laborers, George had to combine a tough-guy attitude with resourceful alternatives. One time, he recalled, he paid a Houlton concrete contractor to truck loads to Presque Isle because no local business would provide him with the material. Another time, he called state regulators about a manager who was intentionally obstructing the project, trying to sabotage George’s work.
Over time, he said, and with the professional credibility he established with each job, negative attitudes abated, and he was awarded new business based on his own merit, not to fill affirmative action quotas.
“I was the only black contractor in Maine doing this work,” he said. “But once I got that business, I kept it.”
Now retired, George remains active in a masonic lodge and enjoys spending time with his family. A former smoker, he suffers from lung disease and relies on supplemental oxygen wherever he goes. A recent cancer diagnosis has him worried, but he remains philosophical.
“When I go, I go,” he shrugged, smiling. “Life’s been good to me.”
George still enjoys singing. In addition to the weekly hymn sings he leads at the Hammond Street Congregational Church, he holds down the bass section in the venerable Bangor Community Chorus, a group he helped found and has sung with for 47 years.
“Singing gives me joy,” he said. “It fills me with happiness and makes me feel worthy. When I sing, somebody else hears me.”