PHIPPSBURG — It has been just over a century since one of the darkest chapters of Maine history took place on Malaga Island.

Located just off of Sebasco in the New Meadows River, Malaga was the home of a mixed-race community that Maine forcibly evicted soon after the turn of the 20th century. The appalling treatment of the residents of the island went largely unknown for decades, with many descendants never even knowing of their own family’s history.

These days, the story is far from forgotten. In 2010, Maine passed a resolution expressing regret for the injustices the state committed against the island’s residents. Maine Coast Heritage Trust has created a sanctuary on the island, preserving it in perpetuity. Plus, every year Bath Middle School’s Acadia House makes sure everyone leaves eighth grade with an understanding of what happened.

On May 23, at the conclusion of this year’s unit on the island, students from the school dedicated a sign installed at the Phippsburg Historical Society to the memory of the descendants of Malaga Island. Students gave a brief presentation on the history of the island, detailing the events that occurred there.

Charlene Bartlett is the teacher who has run the program for the past few years. Students learn about the island through historical fiction, “Lizzie Bright and the Bunkminster Boy,” a story of friendship and defying authority to do what is right.

“We feel it’s important that everyone knows about Malaga Island and its past,” said Bartlett. The story is a lesson on prejudice and hatred, and keeps the memory of the people who were mistreated alive.

Thomas Read is an eighth grader from Phippsburg. “I think it’s good that people are learning and teaching the community what really happened there,” he said. He never knew the history of the island, and typically just saw it as a place where people store lobster traps.

A descendant of Malaga Island, Andrea Brand, was on hand to accept the sign on behalf of those long lost relatives. She never knew of her own ancestry until researching it led her to a “blank spot.” Older relatives gave her information leading to Malaga’s history.

“It’s something that was hidden for 100 years,” she said. “I had no idea I was a descendant.”

Many residents of the surrounding communities likely still don’t know they’re descendants of the Malagaites. Most of the island’s former residents kept their origins hidden, for fear of being discriminated against.

Now, the story is much more well known.

And the eighth graders of Bath Middle School have made sure that anyone who sees their sign gets a reminder of one of Maine’s darkest chapters.

The empty shores of modern-day Malaga Island don’t tell the tale of the diverse community that existed on the island for decades. Founded in part by former slaves in the 1860s, Malaga was home to people of mixed races eking out a maritime lifestyle similar to many other communities in Maine.

Most credit Benjamin Darling for the beginnings of the community. Exact details on Darling, and the things he did, are hard to come by. A black man and former slave usually doesn’t get a paper trail in the 1800s unless they committed criminal acts, and most accounts of Darling were that he was a hard working man who lived honestly.
An isolated population of squatters from various lineages – including Irish, Scottish, and Portuguese – developed over the years. Typically, they didn’t show up on the census, pay taxes, or vote in elections. For the most part, they were left to their own difficult lifestyles on the island, which had poor soil for growing food.

Things changed around the turn of the 20th century. The Eugenics movement was catching on across the nation, and Maine was no exception. The idea that poverty was a genetic fault coupled with racism were not unusual, even in the Midcoast.

In addition, the early 20th century was the start of Maine’s reputation as “Vacationland,” with large hotels and developments for the wealthy popping up along the coast. In the midst of this, the residents of Malaga lived in relative poverty. A community of poor, mixed-race people was seen as a blight by residents nearby, with many calling it an “incongruous scene on a spot of natural beauty.”

Newspapers contributed to the negative reputation of the community on Malaga. Inflammatory articles were picked up across the state, labeling the island’s residents as “incompetents.” An article in the Independent and Enterprise in 1902 called the island’s living conditions “Not fit for dogs,” and saw the community as one of “Ignorance, shiftlessness, filth, and heathenism.”

The island was also seen as a drain on the town of Phippsburg’s coffers, as residents there received aid from the rest of the town. As a result, the town tried to claim the island was the property of Harpswell, notably saying that they “Disown these creatures and they are made outcasts.”

The state forced Phippsburg to take ownership of Malaga, but eventually, Phippsburg forced Maine to claim it. When it did, the state gave the residents an ultimatum: Leave or be forced to leave.

Wild tales of what occurred next are out there. Some stories claim that men stole over to the island in the dead of night to kidnap and burn homes. Less dramatic tales have the state showing up on a day in July 1912 to find most of the homes gone, families having floated them away on rafts.

One truth that can be confirmed is that eight people were taken and locked away at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, known as Pineland more recently. Most would never be allowed to leave. In addition, graves on the island were dug up and destroyed, with the bodies buried unceremoniously in unmarked plots outside what is now Pineland Farms.

The community, and the people of it, was intentionally erased from history.

The story of Malaga didn’t end there, however. The name of the island transformed into a racial slur, with “Malago” becoming a derogatory term for anyone with darker skin. More articles were published in the 50s and 60s that depicted Malagaites as lazy, shiftless people. It wasn’t until relatively recently that the narrative shifted and began acknowledging the mistreatment of the island’s residents.

While the slur has fallen out of favor and the island has become a sanctuary for wildlife, the story of Malaga will live on at Bath Middle School, and in the sign posted at the Phippsburg Historical Society.

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