Malaga Island's past receives official recognition

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PHIPPSBURG — Standing on Malaga Island, on the excavated ground where a schoolhouse once stood, it’s easy to think of young children playing, learning and being part of a small mixed-race community that existed a century ago.

But in 1912 their world changed abruptly when the state evicted everyone, ripped up graves and institutionalized some residents.

At the time of the forced relocation a eugenics movement linking race and poverty to intelligence fueled news reports that the islanders were immoral, ignorant and lazy.

“Let me just say that, I’m sorry – I’m sorry for what was done,” Gov. John Baldacci said Sept. 12 after traveling to the island nature preserve, where he met with nearly 30 of the islanders’ descendants during a ceremony to commemorate the island as part of the Maine Freedom Trail network.

“It’s reprehensible what happened to your families and, you know, the spirit which you bring to today is a spirit that others can learn from,” Baldacci said. “Today we recognize our past, so it may never happen again. If discrimination happens to anyone of us in Maine today, it happens to all of us.”

Baldacci was only the second governor to visit the island – after Gov. Frederick Plaisted, who authorized the eviction.

Rachel Talbot-Ross of Maine’s NAACP, and Maine’s Freedom Trails, along with her family have been working for several years toward getting greater recognition about Malaga Island.

“Gov. Plaisted is no longer the chapter for this history. We are rewriting it today and we’re doing it with the help and the blessing, and a belief in something else, by a different governor,” Talbot-Ross said.

Last spring the Legislature passed a joint resolution sponsored by Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, who read the proclamation at Sunday’s ceremony. The resolution expresses the state’s “profound regret” and officially acknowledges the state-sponsored eviction, the relocation of some of the island’s residents to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, and the eugenic sterilization of former residents in 1925.

Benjamin Darling, a freed slave, was brought to Maine in the late 1700s. His granddaughters started the island community that grew to include people of Scottish, Irish, Anglo, American Indian and African-American ancestry.

Meeting with strong resistance from older Darling generations, one descendent, Dana Darling took the DNA test, which confirmed his family’s ancestry.

“With the governor’s apology – it casts Malaga in a totally different light,” said Dana Darling. “These people weren’t feeble minded, they were just poor. This event begins to change a negative to a positive. Today, I’m truly proud to be a descendent of Benjamin Darling.”

Local fishermen still store their traps on Malaga’s 42 wooded acres. But without the Freedom Trail plaque unveiled at the ceremony, a visitor would be unaware of the island’s history – all the houses were removed as part of the eviction order.

“It is so important to tell this story,” said Debbie Leighton, a contributor to the Freedom Trail project and Phippsburg resident, “to bring some healing for those terrible events.”

The Malaga Island Freedom Trail is a joint collaboration between the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which owns the island, and Maine Freedom Trails, which works to preserve and protect Maine’s African American heritage.

There will also be a special exhibition about Malaga Island at the Maine State Museum in 2012.

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A Freedom Trail marker describing the forced relocation of Malaga Island residents in 1912 is unveiled Sept. 12 by Nate Hamilton, a USM archaeologist who excavated sites on the Island; Gerry Talbot; island descendent Marilyn Darling Voter; Rachel Talbot-Ross of the NAACP; Gov. John Baldacci and Debbie Leighton. The marker in part says “this trail is dedicated to the people of Malaga Island whose only desire was to live and work in peace and acknowledge their right to freedom and justice.”

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