Why Is Maine So White? And What It Means To Ask The Question

Feb 19, 2019

Maine Public recently fielded a question via email from one of our listeners which we decided to try to answer. So, we asked her to repeat it over the phone.

Minter has created work that he says is about Malaga Island and the separation of interracial families at the hands of the state
Credit Daniel Minter

“Hi, My name is Claire Helen Bevan, I live in Camden, Maine, and my question is: Why is Maine so white?"

First, let’s test the premise. It is true that almost 95 percent of people in Maine identify as white, according to the most recent census data. This makes it one of the two whitest state in the country along with Vermont. But why is Maine so white?

The first part of the answer to the question has to do with geography and economics. Maine is the northeastern-most tip of the United States, far away from the American center of the Atlantic slave trade.

“The south was primarily a rural, agricultural, agrarian economy which depended heavily on slavery beginning in the 17th century, both for the production of tobacco and cotton on a large scale,” says Maine State Historian Earl Shettleworth.

Shettleworth says that while there were instances of slavery in Maine, its economy wasn’t built on plantation farming. Maine relied instead on forestry, shipbuilding and textile and mill industries fueled by waterpower.

After the Civil War, some black populations immigrated largely to urban centers such as New York, Chicago and Detroit, attracted by the growing opportunities of new industry. Shettleworth says Maine’s economy just wasn’t robust enough to attract those populations.

“Nowhere in these major patterns of development and industry – which is what really fuels people’s ability to live in a place and their work – do we find in Maine’s history any large concentration of people of color,” he says.

But this next fact complicates matters.

Kate McMahon is a historian at the Smithsonian of African American History in Washington D.C.
Credit Kate McMahon

“Maine was actually much more racially diverse in the 19th century than it was today,” says Kate McMahon, a historian at the Smithsonian of African American History in Washington D.C.

McMahon says a number of historic events influenced Maine’s development as one of “the whitest states in the U.S.”

First- the Civil War took a toll on black communities already established in Maine. That’s because during the war, ship-building transitioned from wooden construction to steel. This eliminated many of the jobs, including coopering, a line of work which had employed many African Americans who had settled in the state.

“All of those industries began to suffer,” says McMahon. “They were the most high-paying jobs, they were stable, and they were jobs African Americans could get.”

And McMahon says some struggled to find work in Maine’s textile, shoe, and rope factories.

“African Americans could not get employed in those jobs,” she says. “They were excluded because of their race, so there were not African Americans working there. They had - gave preference to white immigrants.”

In addition, Maine also enacted anti-miscegenation laws ensuring white and black people couldn’t marry.

And then, Macmahon says, there’s the story of Malaga Island, an interracial community off the coast of Phippsburg.

“In 1912, the state of Maine had decided that they didn’t want this colony of black people,” she says. “All of the homes on the island were removed and razed.”

Myron Beasley teaches American Studies at Bates College.
Credit Bates College

Later, Macmahon, says the Klu Klux Klan established itself in Maine, and shaped the state’s political climate working to elect sympathetic government officials throughout the 1920s.

“So by the 1920’s you have all these economic circumstances that lead to a lot of African Americans leaving the state of Maine, but also a lot of social circumstances that were not conducive for people of color wanting to move to the state of Maine to settle,” Macmahon says. “So you have this economic exclusion and social exclusion.”

All that history has to do with why Maine is still so white. Myron Beasley teaches American Studies at Bates College. He says that over time, many people came to just think of Maine as a very white state.

“So these grand narratives are often things that limit us,” Beasley says. “And we tend to see things how we tend to want to see them through that narrative about the place.”

And for Beasley that causes lingering problems, even in his own field of academia.

“I know in a lot of the academic institutions you hear this phrase, ‘Oh, you know, Maine is so white, we can never attract people who are non-white because it’s so white here.’ That’s a fallacious statement,” he says. “So in many ways in their liberal understanding, this progressive liberalism they are promoting, the very thing they want to dismiss or they want to disrupt.”

Portland artist and educator Daniel Minter says that perception of Maine’s “whiteness” can also act to erase certain Maine cultures that have been here for centuries.

Portland artist and educator Daniel Minter says that perception of Maine's whiteness can also act to erase certain Maine cultures that have been here for centuries.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold / Maine Public

As he sits next to black and blue sketches of work that he says is about Malaga Island and the separation of interracial families at the hands of the state, he says African Americans, Latinos, Asians and a growing number of African immigrants all call Maine home. Plus, Minter says, it is important to acknowledge that Maine’s first population wasn’t white.

“There are people of color here,” Minter says. “There have always been, there were, I mean, you know the Wabanaki were here forever. And how often do you hear of them being called ‘Mainers,’ you know?”

Minter doesn’t dispute the census numbers. There are significantly more white people in the state than people of color. But, he says, the very practice of emphasizing Maine’s whiteness creates its own air of exclusion.

“It’s just that the state has not needed to welcome us. It has not needed to welcome people of color,” he says. “Like I say, in the U.S. if you don’t make it welcoming, then you end up actually pushing us away.”

The percentage of white people in the state has dropped by a couple percentage points in the past 20 years, indicating there’s some growth in the state’s multi-racial make-up. But to further that growth Minter believes that Mainers will need to interrogate perceptions of the state as a “white” place and more actively welcome and embrace people of color.

Originally published 6:10 p.m. Feb. 14, 2019