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Portland celebrates Juneteenth with wide-ranging symposium on Black life in Maine

Portland city councilor Regina Philips, at right holding microphone, speaks during a panel discussion on growing up Black in Maine. The discussion was part of the inaugural State of Black Maine symposium organized by Maine Black Community Development and other groups.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Portland city councilor Regina Philips, at right holding microphone, speaks during a panel discussion on growing up Black in Maine. The discussion was part of the inaugural State of Black Maine symposium organized by Maine Black Community Development and other groups.

Communities across Maine and the country Monday celebrated Juneteenth, which commemorates the freeing of enslaved people in Texas in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

In Portland, the inaugural State of Black Maine Symposium drew a sellout crowd of over 100 people to the University of Southern Maine's Portland campus for a daylong event featuring panel discussions, a business fair, and artistic performances.

Speaking on a panel discussion about growing up Black in Maine, several lifelong Portland residents shared stories of being turned away from buying or renting homes after realtors or landlords learned they were Black.

Some of the examples took place several decades ago, but Ellen McKenzie, who lives in Portland and works in the Biddeford school system, said racism is still a present threat.

"The last year has been very traumatic for my wife and I, because we had a neighbor who was racist. And, you know, after living in our home for 20 years, we were basically forced to move out for our safety," she said. "And this is in Portland. And that's all I'm gonna say, just to let you know that it's still there, and it's real."

 Antonio Rocha performs an abbreviated version of "A Slave Ship Called Malaga" at the State of Black Maine Symposium on Monday. The Malaga was a real-life ship built in Maine in 1832 and later used in the Transatlantic slave trade. In the performance, Rocha
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Artist Antonio Rocha performs an abbreviated version of "A Slave Ship Called Malaga" at the State of Black Maine Symposium on Monday. The Malaga was a real-life ship built in Maine in 1832 and later used in the Transatlantic slave trade.

McKenzie participated in the event alongside her mother, siblings, and others, including Maine's first Black legislator, Gerald Talbot. McKenzie said sharing a stage with them reminded her of how far the community has come in its fight for equality, and how much further there is to go.

Also speaking on the panel was Ellen McKenzie's sister, Merita, a retired Portland Public Schools teacher. Recalling her childhood, Merita said she was at times the only Black student in her school.

In third grade, she said a white classmate began calling her a racial slur.

Over the course of her decades-long career as an educator, Merita said she tried to give her Black students the support that she didn't get when she was their age.

"Because of the experiences that I had, in loving school but feeling this hate, I talked to my students and I let them know things that were never said to me," she said. "I let them know that they're beautiful."

Later in the day, a second panel of Black teachers, school administrators, and education policymakers discussed continuing efforts to make education more equitable, through restorative justice practices, African American studies curricula, and addressing punitive practices that have disproportionately affected Black students.