Portland board asked to rename school in honor of civil rights leader Talbot

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PORTLAND — Civil rights leader, author, politician and champion of education.

These are just some of the appellations that describe the legacy of Gerald E. Talbot, the first African American to be elected to the Maine Legislature.

Mayor Ethan Strimling and the City Council have asked the School Board to consider renaming one of the city’s elementary schools in Talbot’s honor.

In a letter dated Feb. 1, Strimling said the time is right to name a school for the man who continues to be an exceptional role model.

“It can be said that (Talbot) has significantly advanced the rights of all, making our state more equitable and just. He is one of Portland’s most cherished and respected leaders,” Strimling wrote. “… Naming a (school) for Mr. Talbot will encourage generations of students to not only pursue education throughout their lives, but to get involved in their communities and make a positive difference in the lives of others.”

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana described Talbot as a “distinguished Portlander” during a recent School Board meeting, where he outlined the process the School Department will follow in response to the request.

Talbot, 88, did not attend the April 2 meeting and members of the School Board made no comment on the proposal. But Botana indicated there would be plenty of opportunity for public input and board debate on the possible name change.

Under board policy, a school name must preserve or honor history, and be place-specific or honor a person who has made an outstanding contribution to teaching and learning, among other criteria.

About a year ago the School Board approved renaming the former Hall Elementary School, which was replaced by a new building, to pay tribute to longtime school nurse Amanda Rowe.

But since then it has also tabled a request to rename Helen King Middle School in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Botana said.

If the School Board wishes to rename a school to celebrate and raise awareness of Talbot’s contributions to the city and state, Botana said, a special naming committee should probably be created.

But before any formal process can begin, Botana said the board must vote to determine if there’s enough interest from members to move forward. The board next meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 23.

Botana said Talbot, who is a former president of the Maine State Board of Education, has “many accomplishments” under his belt, including reviving the Portland chapter of the NAACP in 1964.

Talbot was born in Bangor and joined the U.S. Army after graduating from high school. Following his discharge, Talbot and his wife settled in Portland, where he at first found it difficult to find housing and a job because of his race.

In August 1963, Talbot was among a group of prominent Mainers who participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

On the 50th anniversary of the march, Talbot was interviewed by the Portland Press Herald and, in recalling that day, described it as a giant picnic, with live musical performances and other speakers.

But Talbot distinctly remembered that when King started to speak, he electrified the crowd of more than 200,000. “It woke everybody up,” he told the Press Herald. “They came to life. I took part in (the march) because I believed in it and still do,” he added.

During his three terms in the Legislature, Talbot was a key player in the state’s first attempts at gay rights legislation and efforts to erradicate use of a racial slur against blacks from all maps and geographical designations in Maine.

According to his biography on the website Americans Who Tell the Truth, Talbot was also well known for touring the state with a vast collection of artifacts and other items of note that reflected the experience of African Americans in Maine.

Talbot visited hundreds of schools, churches, synagogues, businesses, organizations and clubs with his traveling exhibit, which later became the basis for a special collection at the University of Southern Maine.

In 1995, USM presented Talbot an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters and dedicated an auditorium in his name. At the time, it had the distinction of being the only public space in Maine named after an African American.

Talbot has also served on the board of visitors of the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service at USM and on the board of trustees of the University of New England.

In 2006, he partnered with H.H. Price to write the book, “Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People.”

When Talbot was elected to the state Legislature in November 1972, he told The New York Times it was his goal to “lend some visibility to the black minority in Maine.

“Because we form such a small minority in the state, blacks suffer more from being overlooked than anything else,” Talbot said. “I hope the clout and the leverage I can get as a public official will help pull together something for all the minorities in the state.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Although he was born in Bangor, Gerald E. Talbot, the first African American to be elected to the Maine Legislature, has lived in Portland his entire adult life. Now the city is asking the School Department to rename an elementary school in his honor.

Gerald Talbot, second from left, was among several Maine civil rights activists who took part in the March on Washington in 1963. Along with advocating for people of color in his home state, Talbot also traveled the country registering voters during the turbulent 1960s.

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