Maine was far away from the south and the slavery horrors that existed there. Because of its northern location, many people today don’t realize that Maine was home to many African Americans, who played important roles in our country’s history. African Americans could come to Maine without fear of imprisonment or being returned to heartless Southern slave-masters. These three early residents not only were able to enjoy the same quality of life all Mainers did at that time, they also contributed to the betterment of all of Maine’s people and helped make Maine a better place to live. I hope you will enjoy meeting some of Maine’s early and important African American residents.
James Augustine Healy
James Augustine Healy was ordained as the first Black Catholic bishop in the United States on June 2, 1875 at Portland’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. He was the son of an Irish immigrant, Michael Healy, who became a prosperous plantation-owner in Georgia, and a mulatto woman who was actually a slave.
From the moment he arrived in Maine, Bishop Healy proved himself to be an accomplished and articulate civil rights advocate for all people who could not speak for themselves. Being half Irish, he immediately bonded with the many Irish immigrants living in the Munjoy Hill area at that time. Bishop Healy also was fluent in French, and won the trust and admiration of the many French Acadians who moved to Maine after their forced removal from Canada by the British. Bishop Healy understood their plight of exile.
During Bishop Healy’s years in Portland, his Cathedral was still a new church, requiring little renovation. This left him time for not only social justice projects but many other endeavors. The building of the new St. Dominic’s Church, the enlarging of Calvary Cemetery, the establishment of the Conference of St. Vincent de Paul for the care of the poor, the purchase of land on Little Diamond Island for the orphans’ use in summer, the opening of St. Joseph’s Chapel in Deering, and the establishment of Sacred Heart parish are only a few of Bishop Healy’s accomplishments during his tenure.
On June 29, 1900, the much beloved Bishop Healy celebrated his Silver Jubilee. Scarcely a month later, on August 5, 1900, Bishop James Healy died. His funeral took place at the Cathedral on August 9th. As he requested, burial was at Calvary Cemetery. A Celtic cross marks his grave.
Macon Bolling Allen
Macon Bolling Allen was born a free man in Indiana in 1816 and became the first African American in the United States to be admitted to the bar. The following article was published in the Portland American on September 4, 1844.
“A Coloured Lawyer.—Macon B. Allen, of Portland, and formerly of Boston, Massachusetts, a coloured gentleman, whose application for admission to the bar in April last, under the new act, was, as we stated in our paper at the time, refused on the ground that the applicant was not a citizen of Maine, in the contemplation of said act, subsequently applied under the old law to be admitted by examination. He was thereupon called before the examiners, a committee of the Cumberland bar, and sustained a satisfactory examination—the committee recommending him to the Court as a fit candidate—and accordingly he was admitted in the District Court, to practice as an attorney and counsellor at law in the courts of this state.”
His Indiana birth name was given as Allen Macon Bolling, however he changed the order of his names after he moving to Portland, Maine from Indiana. He taught himself how to read and write and eventually was employed as a school teacher. In Portland, he became a law apprentice to General Samuel Fessenden, who was a white local anti-slavery leader and an attorney. So impressed was Fessenden with Macon B. Allen’s grasp of the law, that he recommended him to the bar and asked that he be allowed to practice law in the state of Maine.
John Brown Russwurm
John Brown Russwurm (1799 – 1851) was born in Jamaica, the son of an enslaved woman and a white American merchant. Acknowledged by his father, John was raised by his father as a free person. When his father returned to the United States in 1807, the boy was sent to Canada for schooling. His father’s new wife brought John to their Maine home and insisted that he be fully educated. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1826, one of the first two blacks to graduate from any college in the United States. The following year, he traveled to New York and co-founded the abolitionist Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States.