$1.7M is approved for restoration of historic Black church

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The federal government has approved $1.7 million for the restoration of one of the oldest Black churches in the U.S. that served as a northern sanctuary for the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.

The Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, Maine, is a part of $200 million allocated for Maine projects in the $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, The Portland Press Herald reported.

Leonard Cummings walks out of the Abyssinian Meeting House. He hopes current attention to the Black Lives Matter movement will encourage people to support its restoration.

The church was founded in 1828 by six Black men and eventually became a cultural hub for Blacks in Portland, making it the country’s third-oldest church built by a Black congregation.

The men – Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clemant Tomson, Job Wentworth, Christopher Manuel and John Sigs – published a letter in a Portland newspaper in 1826, announcing their plan to build a church for Black congregants. They no longer wanted to be relegated to the balconies and back pews of Portland’s white congregations.

“Pardon our misapprehensions, if they be such,” the men wrote, “[but] we have sometimes thought our attendance was not desired.”

But the congregation suffered after several key members died in a shipwreck of the SS Portland in 1898. The church never recovered from the loss and closed. The building was sold and converted into low-budget apartments.

Leonard Cummings walks down the newly constructed stairs inside the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, Me., on June 11, 2020.

In 1998, the city sold the abandoned building for $250 to the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian. Renewed interest in the restoration of the historic church began with the leadership of committee member Leonard Cummings and city officials. They hope to use the restored building as a learning center and community meeting space.

“I’m still jumping in my seat,” Cummings, 87, said Friday morning. “All you can do is praise the Lord and the spirits of yesterday. How can you express 25 years of struggle? All I can say is, ‘Thank you.’ ”

Cummings and his daughter Pamela, the committee’s president, recounted the Abyssinian’s vibrant history this month while showing off its recently refurbished floor. Several well-known abolitionists trod the w.ide pine boards in the years before slavery’s end. Only severely damaged portions were carefully cut out and replaced

Leonard Cummings points out marks in the original floor of the Abyssinian Meeting House where the pews once stood.

“We’re standing on the floor that Frederick Douglass stood on,” Pamela Cummings said. “This is history that’s been omitted from almost every history book in Maine. It’s history that has to be preserved and remembered.”

With recent donations, the committee has been able to install historically accurate windows and doors that restore the building’s exterior to its appearance in the 1830s, Cummings said.

The $1.7 million in federal funding will allow the committee to complete the interior restoration, install facilities for a learning center and community meeting space, and develop programming for visitors. Committee leaders are expected to draw up a timeline for finishing the project in the coming weeks.

“We’ve worked hard for this,” Cummings said. “This building will present Black history and Black struggle that was lost in time and was never told.”

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald contributed to this report.

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