SMCC students raise awareness, funds for historic African-American building

SMCC students have provided a boost to the restoration efforts of a historic building in Portland that is recognized as the nation’s third-oldest African-American meeting house.

For their Honors in Action project for the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, students launched an awareness and fundraising campaign last fall to benefit the Abyssinian Meeting House, a wood-frame building constructed in 1828 that was a religious, educational and cultural center for Portland’s African-American community. It also served as a northern hub of the Underground Railroad, providing refuge for escaped slaves.

The building was sold and converted into tenement apartments before being seized by the city of Portland for unpaid taxes in 1992. After sitting vacant for six years, the Abyssinian was bought for historic preservation by the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian in 1998.

Andrea Atkinson, a Liberal Studies-Art student and president of SMCC’s PTK chapter, said PTK members were inspired by last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. In their research, they decided it was important to restore the Abyssinian and better educate the public about its role in Portland history.

To raise awareness, the chapter ran an Abyssinian Awareness Week in late fall on social media, while also raising funds to contribute toward restoration work. In all, the campaign reached more than 300 people while raising $250.

In mid-February, Atkinson met with Pam Cummings, president of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, at the building, located on Newbury Street on Portland’s Munjoy Hill. Inside, Atkinson delivered a check to Cummings as workmen were replacing doors and windows as part of the ongoing restoration project.

Atkinson was gratified to hear how much the restoration committee appreciated the students’ efforts.

“I think that was the peak of it. Everything was done virtually, but it had an impact beyond the virtual realm,” she said.

Cummings was particularly pleased that a younger group of people had advocated for the Abyssinian, since most people actively involved in the restoration project are older, she said.

“The real push is to get youth engaged,” she said to Atkinson. “We love it when younger people get involved — because you’re the future.”

Visiting the Abyssinian and delivering the check was all that more meaningful since it came during Black History Month, Atkinson said. SMCC’s PTK chapter has entered its project into the national PTK Honors in Action competition, with the winners being announced at PTK’s international convention in April.

Elsewhere at SMCC, SMCC’s Social Sciences Department created a webpage in honor of Black History Month with links to resources celebrating and giving historical context to the history of Black people in America, with a special emphasis on Maine.

For a News Writing & Production class taught by Rachel Guthrie and Tim Gillis, students interviewed activist, author and educator Abdul Alkalimat. Alkalimat is a founder of the field of Black Studies and the author of many books and papers about Black liberation.

Photos: Andrea Atkinson stands in front of the Abyssianian Meeting House before providing a check to Pam Cummings, president of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, to be applied toward restoration work on the historic building.