Malaga Island, September 2010

Nancy E. Smith, Executive Director, GrowSmart Maine

I was there to witness as the Governor of Maine apologized to the descendants of Malaga Island for the horrible actions of the state nearly a hundred years ago. A group of about 90 of us gathered on what had once been the populated side of the 41-acre island set just a few hundred yards off the Maine shoreline. Standing beside the descendants were those attending in some official capacity, as I was; fellow representatives of the state legislature, the scientific community tending to research on the island, and the preservationists who had purchased and have now protected this piece of land with its trees, rocky shore, and tragic history.

Poverty is a fact here in Maine; we see it in all counties, in small towns, our big cities, and along the roadways far from any recognizable community. But at the turn of the last century, it was unacceptable to be poor and of mixed race while occupying what was thought to be prime real estate. The small community on Malaga Island was all of those things; they were seen as a financial burden on the surrounding communities; we were told none of the adjoining towns wanted to claim the island because the cost of care for the inhabitants came with this designation. With the exception of five spouses, all those living on Malaga Island were descended from Fatima or Hannah Darling, granddaughters of a black man, Benjamin Darling, and his wife Sarah Proverbs.

Following a visit by the Governor at that time, and with the approval of a judge, the inhabitants of the island were forced to leave; and several committed to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. In the name of the science of Eugenics, some were sterilized “in order to improve the genetics of future generations”. Their homes were removed, the school house relocated, and those buried in the cemetery exhumed and reburied on the site of that same school. That this happened here in Maine seems incomprehensible to me.

We learned that the current generation, many of whom were present on the island this day, is the first to publicly and even proudly claim their connection to Malaga Island. What was once the ultimate insult, “you must be from Malaga”, now provides a source of inspiration and strength. Representative Herb Adams read the Legislative Joint Resolution, with Senator Goodall, Representative Percy and myself beside him in support, we stood with the sense of humility that comes with acknowledging past injustice. As the Governor stepped forward to speak beside the still-shrouded Malaga Island Freedom Trail plaque and map, the question hung in the air; would John Baldacci, as official representative of the State of Maine, apologize for the actions of a past Governor, which allowed for the destruction of this community based on racism and greed.

Before even beginning his prepared remarks, Governor Baldacci said the words: “I’m Sorry”. A rush of emotion swept over the crowd as the descendants acknowledged his apology, and I readily admit that tears flowed from my eyes. Twice more among his remarks, the Governor apologized for the treatment of the people on Malaga Island. It was done. Past injustice acknowledged with an apology, and with the words of Rachel Talbot Ross in accepting the apology, it was forgiven.

What are we to do with this piece of Maine history from here? There will be an exhibition at the Maine State Museum to mark the 100th anniversary of the July 1, 1912 order for the inhabitants to leave, and the walking trails will be maintained by Maine Coast Heritage Trust which now owns and protects the island and archaeological research will continue. But what can we do, as today’s citizens of Maine?

In my work at GrowSmart Maine, I know that accepting, safe, and vibrant communities are a key component of Quality of Place. Mainers are known for our usually quiet but accepting demeanor. In this case, on Malaga Island, we got it wrong in 1912. That has now been acknowledged and hopefully forgiven. Rep. Herb Adams says, “Now there are many next steps with this one behind, as Malaga becomes a teaching tool and lesson in overcoming prejudice.” So the best next step for all of us is to ensure it doesn’t happen ever again. We as a society have found better, more humane ways to address issues of poverty and racism. We can remember the descendants of Hannah and Fatima Darling best by ensuring that we face hatred and greed head-on, and we protect each person’s right to make their own way in the world as best they can.