Abyssinian Meeting House Hosts Open House Over Memorial Day Weekend – Historic Transfer Remembered

By Carol McCracken

The public is invited to an Open House at the Abyssinian Meeting House over Memorial Day Weekend – Friday, May 22, Saturday, May 23 and Monday, May 25 – Memorial Day. The Open House runs from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. all three days and is free. It’s located at 75 Newbery Street at the bottom of the Hill.

This Open House will give the public an opportunity to see the remarkable restoration work the state’s only underground railroad connection has undergone in recent months. The completed restoration and use of this building would put it in compliance with an agreement it made with the city back in 1997 when the Abyssinian retook title to the building from the City. Part of the terms of the transfer back to the Abyssinian were that it would be developed “in recognition of its historic significance.“ The City had taken title to the building in 1996 for non-payment of taxes At the time, the Abyssinian was in arrears in the amount of $28,437 for the building which had been boarded up for several years.

A historic moment, alluded to above, was savored by the then “Committee to Restore the Abyssinian” when at midnight on Monday, May 5, 1997 the City Council unanimously authorized the sale of the building to the Committee for $250. That was the original purchase price of the lot in 1827 when the Abyssinian Society bought it from Reuben Ruby. He was a leader in the Portland back community and is credited with founding the church. Ruby is buried in the Eastern Cemetery at the base of the Hill. The symbolic $250. sale price was paid by Reuben Ruby’s great great grandson, Eugene Jackson. Jackson was present at the title transfer on Monday, May 5 1997. (As was MHN.) Jackson said that Ruby left Maine and struck it rich in the California gold rush. Then he returned home to Maine with his wealth.

The structure was built in 1828 at 73-75 Newbury Street. It succeeded in bringing the local community of some six hundred blacks together. The location served as a religious center when African Americans were banned from some Portland churches. It sponsored anti-slavery rallies and aided fugitives on the Underground Railroad. The Abyssinian housed a school for black children. At the time, Portland was one of only five cities in the country educating African Americans. For years it was the spiritual anchor of the black community. The Abyssinian even survived the fire of 1866 when most of the City’s other buildings were destroyed. In later years, the building served as a stable, junk shop and apartment building.

Where are you Reuben Ruby when you are needed again?! Perhaps you can make a donation at www.abyme.org in lieu of Ruby.