PHIPPSBURG — Until earlier this summer, Brad Lopes had never heard of Malaga Island. It wasn’t until he received an email from the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine about a teacher workshop that he became aware of the small island, just a pitching wedge from Phippsburg that tells the story of a dark time in Maine’s history. 

Lopes teaches at the New School in Kennebunk and is Wampanoag, Native Americans from southern Massachusetts. He said upon researching more about Malaga that he had stumbled across an important moment in Maine’s history that echoed global trends and forces of change that he had never known about. 

“Being Wampanoag and an educator, I have strived to teach and discuss history from a diverse and multicultural perspective that shows the interconnectedness of people and the places they occupy,” Lopes said. “Malaga is a snapshot of Maine history that emphasizes that intersectionality.” 

The story of the 41-acre Malaga Island is one that a lot of people either don’t know about or don’t want to discuss. Whites, blacks and people of mixed-race were forcibly evicted from Malaga in 1912 under orders from Frederick W. Plaisted, then governor of Maine. Plaisted visited the island in 1911 and, after meeting the 47 residents who had lived there since the 1860s, decided they were unfit to continue calling the island home. The residents lived in a poor community on a small island opposite Bear Island, where wealthy and powerful white men wanted to build a resort hotel. 

The community was poor, mostly uneducated and interracial, and that was enough for Plaisted to rip people from their homes, dig up the graves of the deceased and even forcibly condemn several residents to the Maine Home for the Feeble-Minded (now Pineland Farms) in New Gloucester. 

Malaga, like many other islands in Casco Bay, is only accessible from the water and only during the day. Upon landing on the island’s northern shore — less rocky than its southern counterpart — visitors can look around and see an an area where many family houses once stood. Considering the island has no structures still standing, it is still easy to imagine children running around on the shore, families preparing the night’s meal and the island’s elders telling stories to anybody who’d listen. 

On a recent kayaking trip from Cundy’s Harbor, Alice Bean Andrenyak — who’s been giving tours of Malaga for more than a decade — said the island speaks to her and speaks to her quite often. She is hoping one day to be able to spend the night on the island, but so far, her requests have been denied. 

“It’s such a special place with such a history and story that needs to be told,” she said. 

There have been rare instances of teachers trying to get more lessons about Malaga into the classrooms, but the human rights center in Augusta decided the time was right to start educating the teaching community as a whole. 

Shenna Bellows, a state senator from Manchester running for re-election and the new executive director of the nonprofit Holocaust and Human Rights Center, said she thinks people are reflecting on racism in society and in Maine. She said that for a long time, Mainers wanted to pretend racism didn’t exist in the state.

“Growing up in Maine, I had never heard of (Malaga). Maine history was a part of eighth grade, but Malaga wasn’t part of it,” Bellows said. 

The HHRC is interested in helping educators learn about Malaga and teach it to students. Bellows said sins of the past influence some of the challenges of the present, so the subject of Malaga is timely and important. 

Learning about and honoring the past
Myron Beasley didn’t know anything about Malaga until he watched a documentary about the island while in a hotel room more than a decade ago, before starting as a professor at Bates College in Lewiston. 

He’s spent the last 11 years researching the island’s past and told the Portland Press Herald that the subject haunts him. 

Beasley planned an event at Malaga last month with help from Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which purchased the island for $400,000 in 2001. There were people from Maine and from away invited to the event, called “re:past,” including descendants of the settlers and archaeologists who’ve studied the island since 2002. 

The event was meant as a tribute to the people of Malaga, and it included cutouts of characters in period dress and feast with foods that Malaga natives would’ve eaten. 

Beasley said an event like re:past and conversations about Malaga are important. He said he was surprised that so many Mainers don’t know the history of the island. 

“It’s never one particular reason for the lack of engagement,” he said. “It could be both the horrific past and the discomfort it ensues and the lack of capacity to be honest and admit that such actions have occurred in Maine.” 

Beasley said people want to believe in a master narrative that “we are good patriotic people” with a history filled with doing great things and achieving monumental human feats. But that’s just not true, and he said everyone needs to be honest with themselves. 

“We have achieved some monumental tasks for sure, but we have also hurt, killed, enslaved, tortured, and in the case of Malaga, forcefully removed and participated in an erasure — by removing even the graves — that they even existed.” 

Teaching about Malaga
Beasley and Bellows said the contemporary national discourse — including fights over immigration and separation of families — makes the Malaga topic more salient. The time is right, they say, to tell the story of Malaga in the classroom. 

Lopes said he isn’t sure how much his students know about Malaga, but he’s excited to find out. He said he’ll be talking about the island during the school’s Exploration Periods, which are held each Wednesday and allows teachers and students to pursue unique topics without being tied to a specific course. He said he would like to eventually be able to take some students to the island. 

“In the long term, I would like to incorporate it into a case study for a unit in one of my history courses so students can engage directly with this content in a meaningful way centered around their role in the world,” Lopes said. 

Beasley said the topic of Malaga is not limited to the subject of history; it’s about politics, sciences, agriculture, material culture, religion, environmental studies, entrepreneurship, aquaculture, art and visual culture, journalism and even music. 

Setting the story right
Danielle LeBlanc teaches eighth-grade language arts at Brunswick Junior High, and she knew a little about the island because of a descendant student who was more than willing to share what she knew about her family’s history with the class. After attending the seminar at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, LeBlanc said she hopes she can teach the novel “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy,” a book about a young boy in Phippsburg trying to save a young black girl’s family before they get kicked off Malaga. 

LeBlanc said one of the most interesting facets to the story of Malaga in the eyes of an English teacher was the discrepancy in what was written about Malaga at the time and what is now known to be true. She said most of the journalism at the time was composed by eugenists spreading falsities that depicted the Malaga community as lazy and feeble-minded. These cruel lies had a direct impact on what happened to those families. 

“In my classroom, I try to show students how our words really matter and have an effect on our surroundings, for better or worse,” LeBlanc said. “This is such an important example of powerful racist terminology that impacted so many people, right in our own backyard.”

During the second day of the HHRC seminar, the teachers talked about the slave trade in Maine and New England. Horrifically, LeBlanc said, much of what historians have been able to uncover about the presence of enslaved people here has been through promissory notes and mortgages of human beings, reducing lives down to objects in commerce. 

“Knowing my eight-graders, they will be outraged by the nature of these scarce remnants of Maine’s history,” she said. 

Joe Schmidt, a social studies specialist for the Maine Department of Education, said he worked with the HHRC to create the training seminar for teachers. He said the Structured Academic Controversy protocol is a way for teachers to engage in a classroom conversation of sensitive subjects, and the protocol can be used in any discussion where a teacher wants to provide two sides of an idea. 

In Maine, there is a state statute requiring social studies instruction, but Schmidt said Maine has a long history of local control, especially related to schools, so there is no state mandate that teachers teach about Malaga. He said the state standards are not prescriptive nor meant to be used as a curriculum. 

“Throughout the years, different requirements have been added through state statutes — such as the Maine Native American studies listed above — and that would have to be the course of action needed to require the teaching of a subject like Malaga Island,” he said. 

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