Not only black history, but our history: Portland’s hidden gem
Nestled at the bottom of Munjoy Hill, in the heart of Old Portland, rests the Abyssinian Meeting House. This was a fairly new discovery, thanks to my husband, and I was immediately captivated by its deep rooted history. Knowing my love of historical culture and the desire to further educate our children about their roots, my husband scheduled our family a tour of the museum.
Prior to our visit, I began researching the story of the Abyssinian and its restoration efforts. Originally the third African American meeting house in the country, it was built in 1828 and served a multi-functional purpose. It was an event hall, a church, and also an all black school during the segregation era. Their model for integrating schools actually served as a template for the rest of the nation, and other school systems began to follow suit.
A tiny state in a small corner of the country played an imminent role in breaking racial barriers. This goes to show anyone, anywhere, has the ability to evoke change.
In 1866, there was what is known as the Great Fire of Portland. It stretched from the waterfront all the way up to the top of Munjoy Hill. The Abyssinian was in the midst of that blaze, yet survived the fire. During our museum tour, I learned that in more recent years it had been converted to and apartment building, one of the units caught on fire. Still, this weary yet determined structure failed to fall.
The bottom floor serves as a museum, displaying a wide array of artwork by local artists. Some gatherings and events are held in that downstairs area, which helps bring purpose, awareness and life back to restoration efforts. We were lead upstairs after taking in the art (mostly pictured below), to what previously served as the sanctuary. Some of the wood and flooring had been replaced, but for the most part, the upstairs maintained a lot of its original wood. Areas of the floor board still had the holes where the pews from long ago rested. The back of the wall had golf ball sized holes that allowed for a peek out at the sky. This was due to the age and trauma the building has endured. The tall ceiling had newer beams that were built to bring the walls back together. When the building was purchased from the city after it had been apartments (due to back taxes), the roof was removed to bring the walls back together because they were on the verge of buckling.
Along the outer perimeter of the room were educational books, a display of the original wall paper, religious artifacts, more local art and pieces of original wood that were no longer intact. Talking with my tour guide, who is also a board member, I had asked her the vision for the Abyssinian and what can be done to help bring this all to fruition. I find this so important to be a part of, because it is a prominent part of our history and our future that is often ignored and/or misconstrued. Our country still faces racial divide, children of color are still bullied at school, biracial children have a hard time finding where they fit in, and something needs to be done to bring a greater understanding of why things are the way they are. Only by becoming enlightened and appreciating the facts of the past and the beauty in cultural differences that should not separate us, will a life of social and economical equality be possible.
During the visit, not only did I learn about a history I didn’t know existed for my state, I learned even more than I thought possible about the past and what can be done in the future. I want to be part of the change this world needs, part of the change future generations need; most of all I want my children to be trailblazers by KNOWING then TEACHING.
Now a Non-Profit, the Abyssinian is officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is on a mission to raise $1 million in funding to be able complete restoration and be fully accessible to the public, to be able to preserve and maintain African American cultural heritage, and to be able to maintain the structure.
Overall, visiting the Abyssinian was an unforgettable and motivating experience. I look forward to further exploring Portland, donating my time and effort to restoring the Abyssinian, and helping them with implementing educational programs for our youth. I challenge you to learn more about this beautiful piece of history, or scour you own local area for similar historical masterpieces.
To learn more about how you can help with the Abyssinian Restoration Project, visit: Abyme.org
Visit their Facebook page to follow frequent updates and events, or to contact them with any questions you have about the organization.
To learn more about the history of the Abyssinian, check out Portland Landmarks.
(Below are photos, taken by me, when touring the museum).