Standing, telling: Maine College of Art, Abysinnian Meeting House record African-American history

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PORTLAND — The words are on the walls at Maine College of Art. But hearing them means more, according to Pamela Cummings.

“You can hear the voices cracking, the laughs, the emotions,” Cummings said about oral histories from the city’s African-American community, presented at MECA as “Still Standing: The Abyssinian Meeting House Story Archive.”

The exhibit, open until Feb. 24 at 522 Congress St., brings the impressions and recollections of more than 15 people, telling stories Cummings said have been too often overlooked.

“We wanted the oral histories so future generations could hear them and be strengthened,” Cummings, a board member of the Abyssinian Meeting House, said.

To highlight the exhibit, there will be live interviews during the First Friday Art Walk that begins at 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2. On Saturday, Feb. 3, the community is invited to join a story circle from 3-6 p.m., also at MECA.

The Abyssinian Meeting House, the third-oldest African-American meeting house in the nation, is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is being renovated as a cultural center.

It was a stop on the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape captivity, and survived the Great Fire of 1866 after congregation member William Wilberforce Ruby covered the roof with wet blankets.

For the past three years, Cummings and students from MECA’s public engagement course have been asking African-Americans about the hardships, prejudices and joys of growing up in Portland and Maine.

Matt Frassica, the instructor for last semester’s public engagement course, said drawing the stories from those who lived them was an invaluable lesson for the 14 students.

“I think it was a new experience for a lot of them,” he said. “They had to ask personal questions of people they had never met before.”

Students edited hour-long interviews into audio clips about 10 minutes long and toured the meeting house to get more context.

Cummings said it was critical to get voices representative of the entire African-American community, not just its civic and religious leaders. Her family members are included.

“The black community, the African Americans in Maine, in Portland, they’ve done an awful lot of good,” Cummings’ father, Leonard Cummings, said in one interview. “History books have not been kind to the African Americans here in Maine, or in Portland.” 

His daughter called him a man of many words, but others who spoke are as evocative.

Bill Ford recalled a jarring event about 20 years ago that happened as he went to lunch.

“The day I saw the KKK, it was a Saturday in 1996, I think … in South Portland. Standing there was this guy in a white robe,” he recalled.

Police were nearby, but Ford said they were just as concerned when he and a companion opened a car trunk, possibly because they thought he was going for a weapon.

Velma Williams of Old Orchard Beach said E. Emerson Cummings “was my significant other for 40 years.”

Cummings was a teacher and operated an integrated boarding house. He was later a councilor, and first charmed Williams’ parents by bringing over newspapers each night.

“He was so kind to my parents,” she said. “In our 45 years together I never heard the man swear once, tell a dirty joke or say anything off-color.”

Her parents accepted Cummings as a person; her mother’s reservations about their relationship endured.

“My mother was a tough old Irish girl, right from the old country,” Williams said, adding when the couple was out in public, her mother would caution her daughter about them drawing stares.

“I told her ‘let them look,'” Williams said, but added she never knew Emerson promised he would not marry her until after her mother had died.

“He did not live with me until he got sick, and we never did get married,” she said.

Frassica said students had only one chance to do the interviews, and Pamela Cummings said there were times when it was hard to get people, including her parents, to open up.

“These were people who had trouble getting jobs or places to live,” she said. “In the first year the older black people who were sharing stories were sort of reserved. I knew there was more meat there.”

The end results pleased Cummings and Frassica.

“There are stories about resilience and strength,” Frassica said.

“They all are,” Cummings interjected. “‘Still Standing,’ that is what it is all about.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The Abyssinian Meeting House at 75 Newbury St. in Portland is the third-oldest African-American meeting house in the nation and a focal point for “Still Standing,” an exhibit now at Maine College of Art, 522 Congress St.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.