By Andy O’Brien
Originally appeared in March, 2023 issue of The Bollard,
On Sept. 19, 1826, an extraordinary letter signed by six African American men appeared in Portland’s Eastern Argus newspaper. It was very unusual for local papers to print the opinions of Black Mainers, but what made this letter particularly notable was that these men, claiming to speak for 600 members of the city’s Black community, called attention to a racial injustice that had seldom, if ever, been so openly challenged in Maine.
Letter from members of Portland’s Black community in the Eastern Argus, Sept. 19, 1826
Free Black Mainers had long been expected to accept the indignity of segregation and discrimination on Sunday mornings. But the authors of the letter — 28-year-old Reuben Ruby; his brother-in-law, 44-year-old Christopher C. Manuel; Caleb Jonson, Clement Thomson, Job L. Wentworth and John Siggs — were fed up with being forced to sit in segregated pews up on the balcony of the First Parish Church on Congress Street. They were sick of waiting until white parishioners received communion before they could come forward.
The Black community, the men wrote, was often accused of “vice and degradation,” but were denied equal access to education, “moral instruction” and opportunities for “fortifying [their] minds with the principles and actions of piety and religion.” The discriminatory rules in white churches, they argued, seemed designed “to repel rather than invite” them to attend. The authors of the letter knew it was highly unlikely that the white church community would suddenly have a change of heart. What they needed, they argued, was their own church where they could worship free from discrimination. As they wrote:
The undersigned are persuaded that nothing would so much contribute to improve the character and raise the tone of moral feeling among their people as the erection of a suitable house for public worship, and the regular ministration of the gospel. They cannot but consider the accomplishment of this object as initially connected with the usefulness and happiness of their people.
Ruby, Manuel and the other four men had planted the seed of what became the Abyssinian Meeting House, at 75 Newbury St. in Portland. The historic Black church became the beating heart of the Black community in the 19th century. In addition to religious services, it hosted a school for Black children, concerts, dances, suppers, sewing circles, and meetings of the Female Benevolent Society, the Portland Union Anti-Slavery Society, and other groups devoted to causes like temperance and Black empowerment.
The Abyssinian became a venue for powerful abolitionist speakers like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Today, it is the third-oldest Black church in the nation. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the only Underground Railroad site in Maine recognized by the National Park Service.
The Founders of Maine’s Racial Justice Movement
Unfortunately, little is known about Caleb Thomson or Job Wentworth. Like many Black men in Portland, Thomson was a mariner, and co-signer John Siggs worked as a “woodsawer.” It was Ruby and Manuel who became the most prominent leaders in the city’s Black community.
Born in 1798 in Gray, Ruby’s family history is a bit of a mystery. It’s not known who his parents were, but he was biracial and likely had both white and African heritage. He first moved to Portland (pop. then approx. 9,000) in the early 1820s and initially worked as a waiter. In 1821, he married a 16-year-old Black girl named Jennett Pierre at Portland’s Second Congregational Church. Pierre was the daughter of Peter Pierre, a laborer and “truckman” from the Caribbean island of Martinique, and Betsy Pierre. The Pierres were one of the leading families in Portland’s Black community in the early 1800s.
The young couple’s marriage ended tragically when Jennett died on Oct. 21, 1827, at the age of 22. One year later, Ruby buried the couple’s 3-year old son, William A. Ruby, next to his mother in the colored section of Portland’s Eastern Cemetery. At the time, it was considered the back of the cemetery, but now, ironically, the graves of Ruby’s wife and child are situated right along the main thoroughfare of Congress Street. Reuben didn’t remarry until 1829, when he wed 19-year old Rachel Humphrey Ruby.
The Rev. Edward Payson, the white minister of the Second Congregational Church, likely influenced Ruby’s later activism, according to historian Carl H. Moneyhon, author of a biography about Ruby’s son, George T. Ruby. A prominent pastor during the Second Great Awakening, Payson preached that true salvation came from purging sin both from one’s own life and the world. This theology heavily influenced early 19th-century reform movements like those for temperance, prison reform, pacifism and the abolition of slavery.
Reuben Ruby “was a fiery person and he really believed in freedom,” said his great, great grandson, Eugene Jackson, in the 1994 documentary Anchor of the Soul. “And so from what my grandmother and grandfather told me, he used to attend all of the rallies, anything to do with [freeing] of the slaves.”
Ruby also had strong business acumen, which provided him with the resources he needed to pursue justice and moral reform. Within a few years of settling in Portland, Ruby founded a “hack” business — a horse and carriage service that functioned as an early taxi. His hack stand was at the corner of Temple and Federal Streets, in front of what was once the Elm Tavern. In addition to picking up drunks at the tavern, Ruby was “happy to attend to any calls” to anywhere in the city or “elsewhere.” He advertised that customers could even stop by his home on the east side of Preble Street, “where he may be found at any time in the night.” It wasn’t long before he got into real-estate speculation and he’d acquired a substantial amount of land by his late 20s.
Christian “Chris” Manuel was a barber, which was a prominent occupation in the Black community at the time, and ran his shop near the waterfront on Exchange Street. Born in the Virgin Islands in 1788, in 1810 he married 17-year-old Nancy Pierre, who was likely a sister of Ruby’s first wife, according to historian Bob Green, and who also died very young. Following her death in 1815, Manuel married Reuben Ruby’s sister Sophia a year later.
Manuel was also an accomplished musician and organized the first brass band in Maine, in 1825. The all-Black band consisted of Manuel on flute, clarinetist Joel Young, French horn player Ephriam Small, bassoonist Titus Skillings, Rush Shepherd on the cymbals and James Boaz on the bass drum. According to the Portland Daily Press, the band “played by ear wholly and could not read music, but when they appeared in military parades they made up in enthusiasm and noise what they lacked in science, and always created a sensation.”
Many years after his death in 1845, the Portland Daily Press remembered Manuel as “a colored gentleman of the old school” and “a first-class barber.”
Some of Manuel’s friends once nailed up a sign on the side his building with the lyrical words:
Although very tall he was straight as an arrow and every inch a gentleman. Intelligent, genial, neat and very particular, with his ever bright smiling face it was no wonder that he drew to his shop the best class of customers from all parts of the city; merchants, lawyers, doctors and ministers were among those who favored him with a call; in fact his shop was a sort of a Merchants’ Exchange in those days, for if anything new or startling happened in the city the customers congregated there and were sure to be well posted up in all that was going on. Not that he intruded himself on his customers, for he had learned the old adage, “a still tongue is a wise head,” but if asked a question or appealed to in any manner he would couch his language in such appropriate words and give such a lucid explanation [of] the matter under discussion as to astonish those who were not aware of his abilities. With his natural-born courtesy he would always remind those with whom he held any argument that they were just as fairly entitled to their opinion as he was to his.
Draw near, my friend, and hear me tell,
The wonders of Chris Manuel;
He shaves so clean and cuts so nice,
Will brush you down in just a trice,
With water hot and razors keen;
Walk in, my friend, he’ll shave you clean
It seems not everyone loved Manuel. Someone later scrawled these lines at the bottom of the sign: “So clean he’ll shave that ’ere you’ll find, Not even the skin he’ll leave behind.”
“But this did not frighten away the customers,” wrote the Daily Press, “for Chris Manuel flourished for many years afterwards loved and respected by all who knew him, for if he was a black man he had a white heart.”
While the Daily Press may have meant the “white heart” comment purely as a compliment, it can also be interpreted as illustrating how white society viewed successful Black men as the exception to a people they viewed as inferior
For much of his early career, Ruby focused his activism on destroying prejudices by encouraging African Americans to improve themselves through education, temperance and moral uplift. However, as civil rights activists have learned all too well in the 200 years since Ruby’s time, white supremacy is just as stubborn in the North as it is in the South. Just because some Black Mainers became “respectable” in the eyes of white society does not mean white people would respect African Americans as equals.
The famous 1826 letter in the Eastern Argus marked the beginning of a long struggle for racial justice that continues to this day on the same streets Ruby once drove his coach.
The Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House is currently trying to raise the last $1 million needed to fully restore the Abyssinian and turn it into a museum to celebrate Maine’s rich African American history. If you would like to donate, visit abyssinianmeetinghouse.org.
Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach him at email@example.com.