BAR HARBOR — College of the Atlantic design professor Dru Colbert and Katherine McBrien of the Maine Historical Society will make a presentation about the mixed-race population of Maine’s Malaga Island at the next Human Ecology Forum in McCormick Lecture Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at 4:10 p.m. The free public lecture is the inaugural event in COA’s Diverse Voices Series.
The presentation will give a behind-the-scenes look at a recent Maine State Museum exhibit honoring the displaced people of the island. “Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives,” as the museum exhibit was titled, told the story of the residents of an interracial community of fishermen and laborers that in 1912 were evicted by orders from Maine Gov. Frederick W. Plaisted.
The exhibit, designed by Colbert and curated by McBrien, the historical society’s director of public engagement and chief curator, showed how the state cleared the small coastal island of “its shiftless population of half-breed blacks and whites,” as a 1911 newspaper article described it, and how many people at the time saw the island as an ugly mark on the pristine beauty of Maine’s coast.
“When I first learned of Malaga, I was saddened by a story of discrimination and racism so very close to home in this place I love so much,” Colbert said. “And yet, I was heartened to be a part of the Maine State Museum’s efforts toward bringing this story to light, and for the state of Maine’s actions in making a formal apology to the descendants of Malaga Island.”
Like much of the Maine shoreline, rugged 42-acre Malaga Island has a long history. The shell beach on the north end was the location of several settlements, beginning with Native Americans who inhabited the island within the last 1,000 years. Little is known about how these first inhabitants lived; considerably more is known about Malaga’s later residents – the mixed-race community that occupied the island’s north end from the 1860s to 1912.
The probable origins of Malaga Island’s historic community trace back to one African American man, Benjamin Darling. Darling’s descendants and their families soon settled on numerous islands throughout the New Meadows River. Although records are not clear, Henry Griffin and Fatima Darling Griffin, with their family, were most likely the first to live on Malaga Island, setting up house on the east side in the early 1860s.
After years of well-publicized legal battles, the state succeeded in removing the community of around 40 people, committing eight to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. By the end of 1912, all visible traces of the community disappeared — houses were moved, and the cemetery was exhumed.
In their presentation, Colbert and McBrien will discuss the story of Malaga, the experience of curating and arranging the exhibit and the importance of studying this shameful episode in Maine history.
The College of the Atlantic Human Ecology Forum is a free, weekly speaker series based on the work of the academic community, which also draws on artists, poets, and political and religious leaders from around the world. Members of the public are invited to attend.