Traveling While Black & American: Portland, Maine Edition

Updated: Feb 23

DISCLAIMER: In an effort to shed light on a lens that I travel everywhere with, I decided that it was important for me to explicitly talk about My Black American Traveler Experience. I want to stress that everyone has their own experiences and biases traveling to any country. Therefore, my experience may not be your own. In specifying the Black American identity, I acknowledge that while there are some commonalities in experiences as Black people, there is also a privilege of being an American. I am supplementing my thoughts and experience with a context on demographics as I think it is important to paint the whole picture!


Some wonderings you may have that I hope this post helps to answer are:

  • What is the racial makeup of Portland, Maine?

  • Are there black neighborhoods in Maine?

  • What percentage of Portland’s population is black?

  • What is Maine's racial makeup?

  • Is Portland Maine diverse?

  • What is Maine’s black to white ratio?


Table of Contents


 

What I Expected

White AF


My Reality

Wait a minute!!! Where do all these Black folk come from!?! To be honest, I was just shocked! I’ve read that Maine is only 2% Black, but it definitely felt significantly more compared to when I was in Vermont.


gif

A. Treatment & Safety


As a Black person, I felt safe 90% of the time. People were SUPER nice...SUPER, SUPER nice. On Peaks Island (which is a smaller island off the coast of Portland), niceness took a whole new level. For example, the owner of the Umbrella Cover Museum referred to us by name both in the museum and later that evening when we bumped into her back in Portland, Maine. There were two instances where I had my guard higher -- the first was when my mom and I were sitting on a park bench, and a maskless Black guy (who seemed to have some mental issues) approached us and started a long conversation. We entertained the convo as we did not want to trigger him in any way. He commented about his deceased mother, as he saw me there with my mother. The area near the park had a corner filled with many homeless or mentally unstable people -- my safety concern was not because of my race, but because of how I observed these people interacting with each other. The other time I had my guard up a lot higher was when I walked through an area that once again had large homeless or mentally unstable people to get to a bakery. It was disheartening to see how many of those people were Black. Again, I did not feel unsafe or felt that I was treated differently because of my race. However, I want to acknowledge that it probably feels different living in Maine versus visiting Maine.


gif

B. Language

In terms of language, it was easy to get around because everyone spoke English.



C. Vibe & Culture

It’s a nice vibe. I admit that I was more focused on experiencing New England vibes than the Black culture, so I cannot comment too much. I did not experience the turn-up side of Black culture. However, I got to learn the historical connections of Black history to Maine and see some artistic culture in a museum.



D. Visibility

Most Black folks I saw were residents going about their business — it was disheartening to see that a concentration of them were homeless in a specific area of Maine. In that area, I also saw some working-class Blacks as well. I didn’t see many Black tourists, though. 🤦🏾‍♀️. I did appreciate that many cultural and historical institutions elevated Black voice and Black history. For example, the Maine Historical Society had an entire exhibit called “Begin Again: Reckoning with Intolerance in Maine” that focused on the roots of social justice topics such as The Black Lives Matter movement. It also provided a lot of context on Maine’s Black history (the good, the bad, and the ugly). At the Portland Museum of Art, an entire art exhibit of a Black male artist named David Driskell was educated and lived in Maine. Although super white, the level of friendliness made up for it.



Black Stats in Portland, Maine:

  • Although Maine ranks just behind Vermont as the whitest state in the nation, census figures indicate that the Pine Tree State is slowly becoming more racially and culturally diverse. Ethnic populations increased in all 16 counties between 2000 and 2010.

  • Portland is the most diverse city in Maine, 8.45% is Black (White: 84.60%; Asian: 3.47%; Two or more races: 2.88%)

  • Overall in Maine, Blacks make up less than 2% of the population (White: 94.31%; Two or more races: 2.23% Black or African American: 1.38%; Black or African American: 1.38%; Asian: 1.13%)

  • Let this sink in: In the whole state, there were less than 15,000 Black Mainers as of 2014. Well damn.

  • While there is a low percentage of Black Mainers, they make up a higher percentage of those who are unhoused in our state. Black people represent less than 2% of Maine’s population. HOWEVER, in 2019, 26% of homeless individuals were Black or mixed races, and 33% were minorities. Back in 2013, 22.8% of homeless were Black in Portland and 12.8% across the state. Data from the drop-in center for homeless youth in Portland has documented a disproportionate number of Black youth and other youth of color for two decades.

  • Maine has experienced a surge of migrants, mainly from Angola and Congo, who are seeking asylum. There are also many residents from Somalia. Because Maine has an aging workforce -- 20.6% of Maine's population age 65 or older, the highest share of any state -- government leaders saw immigrants as a solution to that problem. The struggle becomes how much does the government needs to help those immigrants.

  • Black people — many of them immigrants — make up less than 2 percent of Maine’s population, but almost a quarter of its coronavirus cases. Data shows that at least 869 of the 3,888 Mainers who have had the coronavirus are Black.

  • Almost half the Black people in Maine are immigrants, the highest share in the nation. Most are from African nations, including Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


gif


Overall: I felt welcomed, and I felt partially seen (unexpectedly). Don’t let Maine’s whiteness fool you! There is a whole lot of Blackness if you go looking for it. Now that we found it let’s make sure to #travelblack while in Maine. I need to return to make a whole trip dedicated to Black Portland, Maine.

What is Portland, Maine’s connection to the "Black Experience?" What is Portland's Black history?


Colonial Times


Some of the earliest evidence of African-Americans in Maine are receipts for selling slaves after the American Revolution. At the time, Maine was a part of Massachusetts, where slavery was outlawed. However, the “District” of Maine still had some slaves. Free blacks did settle in Maine, arriving as seamen to work on ships that came into Portland and other ports. They worked on the waterfront, had their small businesses, worked for railroads, were teamsters or drivers, or worked in service occupations, public accommodations, or restaurants. Some blacks were laborers, woodsmen, or firefighters.


Being the most northeastern tip of the United States, Maine was far away from the center of the Atlantic slave trade. While there were some instances of slavery, the economy of Maine relied more on forestry, shipbuilding, and textile and mill industries fueled by waterpower versus plantation forming. Listen to Maine's Role in the Slave Trade: Little-Known History of Slave Trading in New England.




1800-1900s


Maine was considered much more diverse in the 19th century than now. The Civil War led to a decline in population as the industries shifted, leading to whites being prioritized for industrial jobs. After the Civil War, some black populations immigrated primarily to urban centers such as New York, Chicago, and Detroit, attracted by the growing opportunities of a new industry. However, Maine did not have the economy to draw those populations so far north.


Black Mainers played an integral part in the Underground Railroad. They worked to move the formerly enslaved along the Underground Railroad at the waterfronts to Canada.

The Portland black community was large enough to support a separate church, the Abyssinian Congregational Church that began in 1827. Maine had the nation's first African-American Roman Catholic Bishop, James A. Healy (1830-1900). While he spent much of his career in Boston, he came to Maine in 1875 to serve as Bishop of the Diocese of Portland, a post he held until 1900.





1900s-onward


In 1900, Portland's black population was nearly 291, down from 334 in 1870. About 200 blacks lived in Bangor in 1900, up from 84 in 1870. The two communities had the most prominent black populations in the state in 1900. Although few in number, Blacks were an integral part of many Maine cities and towns. There was a thriving interracial community in Malaga Island -- however, in 1912 the government decided to remove this population completely.


A more disturbing part of Maine’s Black history is the strong presence of the KKK. Maine hosted the most prominent Ku Klux Klan outside of the South in the 1920s. By 1923, the Klan reportedly had 150,000 members in Maine, which was 23% of the population. Although its visible presence has declined, the Klan never left Maine. They were seen recruiting in 2017 in Freeport and Augusta.


African-Americans and Africans continued to come to Maine in the 20th and 21st centuries, some immigrants from war-torn countries, others drawn by colleges, the landscape, employment opportunities, and family.



 

How can I spend a day in Black Portland, ME?


Here is a day-long itinerary that can help you experience Portland, ME Black Travel by experiencing #blackownedbusinesses:


WAYS TO EXPERIENCE BLACK PORTLAND, ME:


FOOD (source of list)


VISIT:

  • Maine Historical Society: An entire exhibit called “Begin Again: reckoning with intolerance in Maine” focuses on the roots of social justice topics such as The Black Lives Matter movement. It also provided a lot of context on Maine’s Black history (the good, the bad, and the ugly.

  • Portland Museum of Art: There was an entire art exhibit of a Black male artist named David Driskell, who lived in Maine.

  • Portland Freedom Trail: A self-guided tour through some of Portland’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods. The Trail will take you to important sites in African American history, specifically those dealing with 19th-century Black Mainers who were part of the fight against slavery.

  • Abyssinian Freedom House: third-oldest African-American meeting house that survives in America


DO:

  • Attend events from Indigo Arts Alliance: a mission of the alliance is to provide Maine based artists of African descent access to a broader range of practicing artists of color from around the world.

  • Take an African American Heritage tour organized by Atlantic Black Box: Through collaborative research, place-based education programs, digital humanities projects, events, and advocacy, The Atlantic Black Box Project seeks to engage the public in the collective rewriting of our regional history to reckon with New England's role in the global economy of enslavement


OTHER LINKS


What has your experience been traveling while Black in Maine? What do you expect it to be if you haven’t?