Take one look at the coast of Maine and it might seem as though nothing bad could ever happen here. The beautiful summers and cozy winters make it an idyllic place to live. But, it wasn’t always this way. In the 1800s a community of people living on Malaga Island in Maine were deemed less than human, forced to move away from their home. It’s not a pretty story – one full of racism and judgement – but it’s a history we need to remember to ensure it’s not repeated. This is the story of Malaga Island.
The present-day Malaga Island Preserve can be found just off the coast of Maine, near Phippsburg.
The story starts in the mid-1800s, when the Malaga Island community first took shape.
The residents of the island primarily fished the New Meadows River. They lived in small homes with dirt floors. Conditions were rough, but they were together with family and friends.
Many of those that lived here were descendants of Benjamin Darling, a black man who lived on an island nearby in the late 1700s.
Others could trace their lineage to other parts of the 1700s and The American Revolution. The community was racially mixed, living and working together.
The folks living here, largely and incorrectly thought to be runaway slaves, were also employed masonry, carpentry and some worked at nearby hotels on the mainland.
Before the demise of the island, two missionaries were working to start a establish a school for children on the island. As they worked to raise funds in other states, stories of the island spread throughout the country. The press picked up the story and negative views of the community grew.
As a result of this press, Malaga Island is one of the best documented accounts of rural Black American life in the early 1900s. The newspaper coverage allowed for the experience on Malaga Island to be shared far beyond Maine and the photos of its inhabitants shows what life was like. The power of the press was alive, sharing stories and true experiences and it proves how important it is to our modern society.
While life was hard for this poor community, things got worse in the 1800s when eugenics became a widely held belief in America.
This psuedo-science claimed that things like poverty, illness and low intelligence were directly related to genetic makeup. Those of a different race or background were seen as a scourge to society, infiltrating what would otherwise be a perfect society.
This belief took hold and grew as more and more immigrants came to America looking for a better life. It was seen throughout the country and played out in cities and towns throughout America.
At the same time, Maine was seeing a boom in tourism. Wealthy people from places like Boston were coming to Maine in droves looking for an idyllic spot to spend summers on the coast. With this influx of wealth offering an economic boost to Maine, there was pressure to make sure everything looked perfect. Including the people who were in the area.
Gov. Frederick Plaisted famously told a reporter that the community living on Malaga Island should be removed saying, "I think the best plan would be to burn down the shacks with all of their filth."
In order to facilitate the removal of the 33 residents, Maine purchased the island in an illegal deal. It was contested, but the deal went through and the immediate removal of the residents took place.
In the summer of 1912, the community of Malaga was forced to relocate to the mainland. Some tried to move their homes using rafts. Any that remained were burned to the ground. Residents were given a small bit of money, but the emotional damage and the damage of eugenics was already done. As a result of this "science," many communities refused to take in the residents.
Making things worse was the fact that coastal towns were seeing a lack of jobs. As a result, in towns like nearby Phippsburg, resources became scarce. There were no federal assistance programs in America at this time, so local families began relying on assistance from the towns in which they lived. To continue to keep people afloat, towns were forced to raise taxes. Phippsburg residents felt that they couldn't afford to assistant the Malaga Island residents, which left them with few options.
While all buildings on the island were meant to be burned, the small schoolhouse remained and was moved to the mainland to become a church.
8 residents who were people of color or Native American were institutionalized at Pineland, referred to as The Maine Home for the Feeble-Minded at the time. 6 of these residents were of normal intelligence and many died while here.
The graves on the island were exhumed and moved to Pineland as well.
Each of these graves bear the same date in 1912 - the one on which they were excavated.
In 2017 a monument was dedicatedat Pineland Farms to commemorate this lost community.
The Maine Coast Heritage Trust acquired the island in 2001 and it's now a preserve open to the public. There's a marked trail on the island, but the only way to get there is by boat.
Another difficult history to remember is that of Flagstaff Village, the town that lies beneath Flagstaff Lake.
Click here to read the history of what happened.