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[graphic] Abyssinian Meeting House

Abyssinian Meeting House
Photo courtesy of Maine Historic Preservation Commission, Photographer: Christi Mitchell.

The Abyssinian Meeting House is a vernacular wood-frame building constructed between 1828 and 1831 to serve Portland, Maine’s African American community. Remodeled by the Congregation in the decade after the Civil War, it was used for religious, social, educational, and cultural events until its closing in 1916. Eight years later the structure was substantially renovated into tenement apartments, which were occupied continuously until the building was condemned by the City of Portland in 1991. In 1998 the former meeting house was sold for back taxes to the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, a non-profit organization formed to preserve and restore the structure.

In February, 1828, twenty-two black residents took steps to formally organize the Abyssinian Religious Society as an all African American congregation. By July 2, they had incorporated the society, appointed trustees, and moved to build a new meeting house of their own. The congregation became involved in the political issues of the day, especially those that affected African Americans. For example, in 1842, the Portland Union Antislavery Society was founded, and the first meeting was chaired by Rev. Samuel C. Fessenden (son of Samuel Fessenden). Later, the Abyssinian Meeting House played a role in the Underground Railroad.

Because of its easy access by rail and sea, Portland developed as one of the northernmost hubs of the Underground Railroad system. Black and white activists in Portland provided safe houses and refuge for slaves and helped organize escape routes to England and Canada. The leaders and members of the Abyssinian Church actively participated in concealing, supplying, and transporting runaway slaves. Lewis G. Clark (1812-1897), a runaway slave from Kentucky, provided a first-hand account of the horrors of slavery in a speech at the Abyssinian Meeting House and also during that meeting the noted Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) also spoke from the pulpit.

The Abyssinian Meeting House is one of the few frame public buildings from the early 19th century to survive the 1866 Portland fire. The fire destroyed some 1,500 buildings (one third of the city) and left 12,000 people homeless. The Abyssinian Meeting House was saved, largely through the efforts of William Wilberforce Ruby (1834-1906), a black fireman and son of Reuben Ruby, who reportedly protected the building by draping the roof in wet blankets. Only two older African American meeting houses are known to survive in the northeast, the African Meeting House in Boston (1806), and the small, vernacular, African Meeting House on Nantucket (1827), both initially Baptist houses of worship. Inasmuch as this is the only firmly established, pre-Civil war, African-American house of worship in the state, it holds a unique position in the history of Maine.

By the end of the nineteenth century, membership at the Meeting House had declined as the number of religious institutions in Portland increased and the black population became smaller and more dispersed. The wreck of the steamship Portland in November, 1898, resulted in the loss of nineteen adult male members of the Congregation (including two trustees) who worked on the ship. From that point on, the level of activity at the church was minimal although the congregation as a formal entity survived until 1916. The Abyssinian Meeting House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 3, 2006. Extensive research and documentation has revealed that the structure continues to be an important source of data for investigating African American religious and social practices in 19th century Maine.

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