Until recently, the heartbreaking tale of Malaga Island remained buried within the recesses of Maine's collective history, largely as something most wanted lost in the sands of time. And like the stories surrounding Rosewood, Florida and the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, it's a story where prejudice and hatred took center stage to annihilate a community:
A century ago this spring, Maine Gov. Frederick Plaisted oversaw the destruction of a year-around fishing hamlet on Malaga Island, a 42-acre island in the New Meadows River, just off the Phippsburg shore. The island's 40 residents -- white, black and mixed race -- were ordered to leave the island, and to take their homes with them, else they would be burned. A fifth of the population was incarcerated on questionable grounds at the Maine School for the Feebleminded in New Gloucester, where most spent the rest of their lives. The island schoolhouse was dismantled and relocated to Louds Island in Muscongus Bay.
Leaving no stone unturned, state officials dug up the 17 bodies in the island cemetery, distributed them into five caskets and buried them at the School of the Feebleminded -- now Pineland Farms -- where they remain today.
Several islanders spent the rest of their lives in this state-run mental institution. One couple, Robert and Laura Darling Tripp, floated from place to place in a makeshift houseboat, but, unwelcomed, wound up moored to another scrap of an island. Malnourished, Laura fell sick during a gale; when her husband returned with help, he found the couple's two children clinging to her lifeless body. Many others suffered from the stigma of being associated with the island.
"After the island was cleared, people did not really want to talk about this incident, especially the descendants, because to raise your hand and say you were from Malaga supposedly meant you were feebleminded or had black blood in you or both," said Rob Rosenthal, whose 2009 radio documentary "Malaga: A Story Better Left Untold" helped draw attention to what is one of the most disgraceful official acts in our state's history. "Nobody wanted to declare that."
The prelude to Malaga Island's wholesale clearing rings similar to the events preceding the destruction of Rosewood and Greenwood - whereas the latter involved the perceived threat of miscegenation through sexual assault, Malaga Island was a community where not only did black and white Americans co-mingle freely, but the threat of miscegenation was realized through the presence of mixed families on the island. By all counts, that was something that neither the eugenicists of the era nor those who endorsed their views could abide by:
But the shell middens offered no protection from Gov. Plaisted, who visited the obscure island with his entire executive council in July 1911. That December, the governor ordered the eviction of the community, and officials institutionalized eight residents, some for failing to identify a telephone (which none had likely seen) or for not knowing that William Howard Taft had succeeded Teddy Roosevelt as president. Those who remained were given payments for their homes and ordered to leave -- with or without them -- by the first of July, 1912.
Later that year, the cemetery was cleared and the island sold to a close friend and business partner of the chair of Plaisted's executive council, Dr. Gustavus C. Kilgore of Belfast, who played a central role in the creation of the governor's policies, including signing the commitment orders for those sent to New Gloucester.
Nobody has lived on the island since.
A Sun Journal article (Google cached version here) describes how the island came under ownership of the MCHT:
In 2001, the MCHT bought Malaga Island from a man who sold it at a bargain price because he wanted the island to be preserved. He wanted to keep developers away and he wanted local fishermen to continue using the island.
"But for this generous landowner," says Rich Knox, communications director at MCHT, "there would be houses out here. There would be no archeology, no education. If it wasn't for land conservation, you wouldn't have these kinds of places."
Now this is interesting. I'd like to know about this man and anyone else who came into ownership of the island after Kilgore.
It took nearly a century for the state of Maine to express regret and issue an apology. That's another common thread linking Greenwood, Rosewood and Malaga Island together. The passage of time does a lot of things. It dries freshly drawn blood and turns hot, vivid pain into a dull, distant ache. It makes people forget, especially if what's to be remember is buried under the ever-growing rubble of history itself.
But for better or worst, it makes talking about events such as those on Malaga Island "safe" to talk about, as the people involved in this injustice are themselves long in the ground and therefore only culpable in the eyes of history. The descendants of those who perpetrated this terrible act are also removed from any culpability by virtue of time. All that's left is the descendants of the victims and their willingness to make the world aware of what happened. And, of course, the various historians and archaeologists tasked with studying what life was like before the community was destroyed:
Malaga's people were certainly poor. The island's soil is inappropriate for farming, and fishing, laboring or doing laundry and carpentry for mainlanders didn't pay well. Their homes were modest, and one family lived in a converted ship's cabin. Some relied on charity from the town to get through the winter, and in 1908 private donors stepped in to help build an island school. School ledgers have survived.
"The papers written by the students show their penmanship was perfect and their spelling was better than mine," said Lynda Wyman, a trustee at the Phippsburg Historical Society, which also will have a small Malaga exhibit this summer. "It absolutely shows that kids were educated, not illiterate or so-called feebleminded or any of those things."
Archaeological digs by University of Southern Maine researchers Nathan Hamilton and Robert Sanford show the islanders caught lobsters, shellfish, cod and even swordfish. Thousands of buttons near the home of the island's laundress attest to how much washing she took in from Phippsburg's boardinghouses.
They built their homes on piles of discarded clam, mussel and scallop shells because they could be made level and provided excellent drainage. In doing so, they inadvertently gave a valuable gift to 21st-century archeologists.
"The shell middens protected almost all the artifacts and household stuff they mixed into it, and we actually know who lived on each spot," Hamilton said. "To actually have a patch of ground where we know the name and age of the individuals associated with it, their race, their jobs and when they lived there -- that's really interesting and unique."
These people made a life for themselves, free of the interference, strife and hardship that was endemic in many places where various forms of prejudice were tolerated and even given legal sanction. And because the community's existence upset the sensibilities of a powerful few while giving license to naked greed, Frederick Plaisted and his executive council found ample justification to right what they saw as a wrong and, in the process, committed a crime that cast a lingering pall over Phippsburg and the rest of the state for an entire century.
The events that happened afterward were especially appalling. To erase practically every single trace of the inhabitants' existence from the island by unearthing and removing its dead meant harboring a blinding, intense hatred and nearly unfathomable disrespect. To declare a fifth of the population as "feebleminded" and condemn them to a life of unjustified institutionalization required a mind attuned to the belief of the Negro and those who deigned to mix with them as "feebleminded" as any mentally ill individual. To re-intern those dead on the same grounds of that institution required pure, unadulterated malice.
It didn't just border on evil - it practically was.
The first step of reconciliation involves admitting you were wrong, but that's only the beginning:
Relatives of the Malaga evictees say having a high-profile exhibit at the state's official museum is cathartic, but there is another step Voter would still like to see. "Closure for me is to return the bodies to the island because my aunts died there believing their bones would become part of it," she said. "Removing the bodies was the difference between eviction and annihilation."