PORTLAND — Immigration is a hot topic in Maine.
Some state and local leaders see immigrants as an answer to the state’s slowing growth and aging population. In his recent state of the city speech, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling advocated for creating an Office for New Americans to assist with job training and business development.
Others, however, see immigrants, especially from war-torn countries like Syria, as a security threat. Gov. Paul LePage said in November that he would oppose any effort to resettle Syrian refugees in Maine.
Now a new exhibit called “400 Years of New Mainers,” at the Maine Historical Society on Congress Street, attempts to deconstruct the issue with a series of photographs, original documents, and historical writing on the legacy of immigration in Maine.
“Immigration is … America’s oldest tradition,” curators Reza Jalali and Tilly Laskey write in the exhibit’s opening plaque. “Since the first people – the Wabanaki – permitted Europeans to settle in the land now known as Maine, we have been a state of immigrants.”
The exhibit features some of Maine’s earliest waves of European immigrants after colonial settlement, profiling specific “New Mainers” along the way.
Protasio Neri, born in Levigliani, Italy, came to America with his parents in 1877 when he was 27 years old. In 1879, he started working for Hallowell Granite Works.
In Hallowell, Neri was heavily involved in unionizing granite workers, staging a 5 1/2-month lockout in 1892. He was also a member of the Knights of Pythias and the Masonic Lodge, and some of his descendants still live in Hallowell, according to the historical society.
Apart from European immigrants, Maine was also a destination for free African Americans. Dr. Antonius Lamy, who is described in a 1672 court document as “Anthony a black man,” may have been Maine’s first doctor, according to the historical society.
James Augustine Healy, who served as the Bishop of Portland from 1875 until his death in 1900, was the first African American bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the first black Catholic priest.
But perhaps the centerpiece of the exhibit is its section on Lewiston, and its status as the public face of Somali immigration: since Somali refugees first started moving to Lewiston in 2001, there are now an estimated 7,000 in the city of 36,000.
The current Somali migration was preceded, however, by another: In the late 1800s, hundreds of French Canadians began to arrive in the city, looking for work in Lewiston’s booming mills.
The result was a near doubling of Lewiston’s population in a decade.
The newcomers were severely marginalized. They were relegated to a cramped neighborhood called “Little Canada,” bounded by the Androscoggin River and industrial canals.
When they tried to move, they were met with resistance from second- and third-generation Irish and English Lewistonians.
Right next to black-and-white pictures of Franco-American newcomers is a video featuring Lewiston High School’s 2015 state champion soccer team; 18 of the team’s 25 players came to Lewiston as refugees from countries like Congo, Somalia, and Kenya. At first, the team, like the town, was divided along racial lines, the video states.
But Coach Mike McGraw knew something had to change if the team was going to get anywhere.
“I want you guys to come over here in the middle, and sit,” McGraw says in the video. “And I sat this guy here, and that guy here, so that they were intermingled. And I said, ‘this is how a team plays.'”
“This is how I want you to be on the field and off the field together,” he added.
The team went on to win the first state soccer championship in school history. Attendance at the final games swelled to 4,500.
A documentary on the team, called “One Team: The Story of the Lewiston High School Blue Devils,” is in production, too.
The exhibit’s title is taken from a book of a similar name. “New Mainers: Portraits of Our Immigrant Neighbors,” was published in 2009, and images and profiles by author Pat Nyhan and photographer Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest fill wall space between the stories of English, Italian, Irish, Albanian, and French Canadian immigrants.
Jalali, coordinator of multicultural student affairs at the University of Southern Maine, who wrote the forward to “New Mainers,” was a primary curator for the historical society exhibit.
He is originally from Iran, and said that to him the essence of the exhibit “boiled down to the fact that we all are the same. That our stories are the same, regardless of when we have arrived in Maine.”
He said one historical parallel he found uncanny was the celebration in Lewiston when the city hired its first Greek police officer, Anthony Petropulos, in 1918. His uniform is on display in the exhibit.
“As a community, we feel the same excitement when years later, 2016, we have the first Somali police officer in Portland,” he said.
No matter the year, “we face the same barriers, the same struggles finding our place in a new country and working hard to prove ourselves of being worthy to be given this chance to start a new life,” he said.
Laskey, curator for the Maine Historical Society, said “there are no new immigrant stories; it’s the same story that keeps playing out with different faces.”
Visitors to “400 Years of New Mainers” were asked to map their origins between a world map and Maine at the exhibit’s opening Feb. 5. Anyone interested can view “New Mainers” from now until the end of May at the Maine Historical Society, 489 Congress St., Portland
Anthony Petropulos was hired as Lewiston’s first Greek police officer in 1918.