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Rev. Amos N. Freeman & a New Era for Black Organizing in Portland

by Andy O’Brien

PHOTOS: Reverend Amos Beman & Reverend Amos N. Freeman

When the Rev. Amos N. Freeman became the first full-time pastor of
Portland’s Abyssinian Congregational Church in the fall of 1841, a glorious
revival of the little Black meeting house on Munjoy Hill began. Financial
troubles had ripped the congregation apart in the late 1830s, as its creditors
filed lawsuits and members turned against one another.

“During ‘the reign of terror,’ the people became much scattered, and
divided,” an Abyssinian pastor, the Rev. Amos Beman, recounted in 1841;
“the minds of many soured and embittered — some were discouraged and
they ‘hung their harps upon the willow refusing to sing the songs of Zion;’
while some — the ‘noble few’ — still wept between the porch and the altar,
mourning and sighing over the desolations of Israel.”

After the congregation fired Minister Samuel Chase, the meeting house only
opened to the public a handful of times. But when Beman visited Portland
in 1841, church services at the Abyssinian were packed and the “hearts and
minds of Christians were awakened.”

Portland presented a much different environment than Rev. Freeman had
experienced at his previous post in Newark, N.J. There were only about 400
African Americans in Portland. Many had come to Maine on trading ships
from the Caribbean, while others migrated from other parts of New
England and the Canadian Maritimes. Some Black families had been in

Maine for generations, their ancestors kidnapped from West Africa and
sold to sea captains and wealthy coastal merchants. Several of them were
formerly enslaved in Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland and

When slavery was abolished in the British West Indies on Aug. 1, 1834,
African Americans from all backgrounds in Portland “celebrated in a quiet
way,” according to the Portland Transcript. Could it be possible, they
wondered, that white Americans would one day see the light?

In 1886, a Portland Transcript reporter was “rummaging” in a “little-used
drawer” when he discovered some notes someone wrote about working-
class Black Portlanders in the antebellum period. There was Jack Stark
Lancey, an oakum picker — a tedious and sticky job that involved teasing
apart the fibers of old ship rigging and recycling it to make caulking for
shipbuilding. In 1836, Maine pan-Africanist writer, inventor and oakum
picker Robert Benjamin Lewis patented a hand-cranked oakum-picking
machine that became widely used in Maine shipyards, making the work of
low-wage Black laborers like Lancey much easier.

The reporter read of Jack Groves, a “very active man” who worked for
shipbuilder Jacob Knight. Joseph Shepard, a native of the Congo, worked
as a horse-cart driver, while his son William Shepard “fed his horse on
shavings.” Abyssinian co-founder Clem Thompson was “a tall, fine looking
man,” and Lewis Shepard was “a smart fellow, who delighted in a fight at
general muster,” presumably for militia trainings, “or on any other occasion.” “Old Farm” Shepard had a stand selling spruce beer, eggnog, candy and gingerbread.

Peter Pier, a native of the West Indies, worked on the wharves, went to sea
and drove a truck team. Abyssinian leader Christian Manuel was a “genteel
barber” and fellow Abyssinian co-founder John Siggs was a stevedore. Joel
Young, who lived on the north side of Bramhall Hill, played his fife, and a
man cited simply as Dusenbury, a laborer, played his fiddle. Boston
Jackson’s oath was: “I hope to go to Boston.” William Richard was “a large
man, simple-minded, on whose forehead the boys used to pretend to stick a
fourpence, and then get him to butt it against a wall, and when he had
taken two or three butts they would drop the fourpence, and he would seize
it, thinking he had just shaken it off.” According to the Transcript, a man
referred to only as Craig was “a horrid, savage-looking … borer.”

Several Black residents of the city were sailors, and they told Rev. Beman
stories of many “hair-breadth escapes by flood and field,” of “perils by sea,
and of perils by land.”

“Many of them have friends and relatives in bondage — some have children
there,” Beman wrote in a letter to the Black activist and minister James
Pennington. “Yes the mother is here, and the children there, destined to
meet no more on earth! Here the widow weeps for husband and friend
engulfed in the ocean, where their bodies must remain until that voice,
‘which the winds and the waves obey,’ shall command the ‘sea to give up the
dead that are therein.’ Some of those who ‘tempt the raging main’ are the firm and devoted friends of the Lord Jesus, ‘faithful found amid thefaithless.’”

Beman lamented that Black sailors from Portland were too often led astray
by the “land sharks that infest every port,” enticing them to sinful behavior
and robbing them of their hard-earned money. “Benign,” he added, “were
they all Christians!”

The good news to Beman was that there was a growing temperance
movement in the city. That spring of 1841, the Black temperance society
was rekindled at the Abyssinian and 40 men took a pledge to abstain from
intoxicating beverages. The reverend happily reported to his readership
that Maine’s constitution made “no distinction on account of color,” and
any man who resided in the state for three months and dutifully paid his
taxes was entitled to the right to vote.

When Rev. Freeman arrived in Portland on a steamship early one May
morning in 1841, he was warmly welcomed by his brethren. They brought
him to the home of Margaret and Blackstone Driver, where his “kind and
warm hearted friend,” Sister Driver, had prepared a delicious breakfast.
Born in 1769, Margaret F. Driver, who today is buried in Eastern Cemetery,
was born into slavery in North Carolina, but later settled in Portland and
became a pillar of the Abyssinian community. A year later, her husband
Blackstone helped found the Portland Union Anti-Slavery Society with a
group of prominent Black men including its President, Christian C. Manuel,
and Secretary Jacob Dickson.

Freeman soon found an eager group of congregants ready to revive the
church. Upon his arrival, prayer meetings were held every night except
Saturdays, and often the house was so packed that Rev. Freeman had to
turn people away. The church formed committees of both men and women
to visit every Black resident of the city and plead with them to “take the
pledge” of sobriety.

One of Freeman’s duties was to teach Black children, and in 1846 he
became the principal at the segregated school for those kids, housed in the
Abyssinian Meeting House. Freeman became known as a “devoted and
indefatigable teacher,” according to Portland School Board minutes, and
was credited with introducing a popular music program. Black activist
Reuben Ruby’s son, the future Texas state senator George T. Ruby, was said
to have developed his beautiful singing voice there before the school was
closed in 1856 due to lack of enrollment. The remaining Black students
were finally allowed to attend the city’s white schools. George Ruby became
the first Black student to graduate from Portland High School.

Freeman was a charismatic preacher, and membership in the Abyssinian
grew during his tenure. White people had become so “attached to him” that
white congregants helped fill Sunday services, according to the reverend’s
1893 obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Abolitionist Samuel Fessenden
and a number of white sea captains regularly attended services there, and
several white families purchased pews at the church.

As Abyssinian researcher Randolph Dominic wrote, Freeman likely
preached a “strict moral code,” as congregants were occasionally censured

or expelled from the congregation for behavior deemed sinful. One parish
meeting contained the resolution “that this Church Deam it sinfull to visit
[dances], theaters and Sirkices [circuses],” and “voted that if any goes to
any of these places they shall be delt with.”

Freeman was able to purchase a home on St. John Street and is said to have
taken in formerly enslaved African Americans. However, with only 50 to 60
members during Freeman’s tenure, the church continued to struggle
financially. In 1850, there were only four dollars left in the Abyssinian
treasury. As a result of its money woes, the church was not able to pay Rev.
Freeman his full promised salary and he had to do a lot of fundraising at
wealthier white churches.

One day, when he visited the Congregational church (now the First Parish
Church) on Cleveland Street in Brunswick to solicit donations, a kerfuffle
erupted before he even had a chance to speak. As the Brunswick journalist
Albert Tenney wrote years later:

“Two gentlemen of the congregation, of sea going habits and anti-
negro prejudices, on coming into the church and seating themselves,
noticed the colored minister, and withdrew with haste and
indignation. It happened next day that a street preacher of eccentric
manners and speech, addressed a crowd from a box at the corner of
one of the streets. Among those who pressed up near him to listen
were the aforesaid sea captains, whose prevailing complexion was
neither black nor white, The preacher startled his hearers by
shouting, “A wonderful miracle took place on the hill in the great
church, yesterday! God sent a colored messenger from heaven to
declare his will unto the people. He sat down in the pulpit, and
without opening his mouth he cast out two devils!”

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