The image of thousands of people gathering on Forest Avenue in Portland to witness a Ku Klux Klan mass initiation – something that actually happened in 1923 – seems almost surreal today.
Many of us who live in Maine assume that slavery, Jim Crow laws and massive Ku Klux Klan rallies are things that happened far from here, long, long ago. But a group of University of Southern Maine students and staff have put together an exhibit that explores some violent and frightening aspects of African-American history in our own backyard.
The exhibition is called “Slavery and Public History” and includes about 20 images, artifacts and publications from various USM special collections. The exhibit features shackles from a slave ship, a newspaper article about the Ku Klux Klan in Maine, documents related to a Klan charter in Androscoggin County and a copy of “The 1843 American Antislavery Society Almanac.”
Located on the sixth floor of the Glickman Family Library on USM’s Portland campus, the free exhibition runs through March 15. February is African-American History Month nationwide.
The artifacts were selected and researched by students in English professor Eve Raimon’s “Slavery and Public History” course at USM.
“I think that as Northerners we have worked from this premise that we were all abolitionists, that we were all leaders in the thought of liberty for all,” said Dee Tutino of Westbrook, one of the students who worked on the exhibition. “We were able to use some of these (items in the exhibit) to take a look with fresh eyes at some of the perceptions that have been handed down to us.”
Raimon said having students select artifacts and organize an exhibit was a way to make history “three dimensional” for them.
“I think by getting to see a KKK charter, or slave restraints, or a poster for runaway slaves, it makes the history that happened here more tangible to them,” said Raimon.
Raimon said that she thought an exhibit of artifacts of African-American history in New England, depicting slavery and racism, might help people better understand the racial tensions that still plague our country to today.
“I think seeing things like this help people understand the conditions that can lead to the violence we’ve been seeing in the news lately,” Raimon said.
The exhibit includes an 1854 edition of “Twelve Years a Slave,” by Solomon Northup, a free African-American from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The book was made into a film in 2013.
The artifacts in the exhibition come from the university’s Gerald E. Talbot Collection and from its Shirley S. and Bernard Kazon Americana Collection. Talbot was the first African-American elected to the Maine Legislature, in 1972. Bernard Kazon was a vice president of Eastland Shoe Corp. who collected documents related to slavery.
Tutino said the students each worked on researching and writing about a piece in the exhibit that “spoke to us personally.” She said she researched a runaway slave poster.
“To be able to see that, see documentation of the exchange and sale of a person, is powerful,” said Tutino.
Raimon said she hopes the exhibit gets people thinking and talking about racism, in all its forms and locales.
“If we can acknowledge that racism is still present everywhere, then we can have a meaningful dialogue,” she said.
WHEN: 7:45 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7:45 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.to 11 p.m. Sunday. Through March 15.
WHERE: Glickman Family Library, University of Southern Maine, 314 Forest Ave., Portland
HOW MUCH: Free