Constructed between 1828 and 1831 by freed African Americans, the Abyssinian Meeting House is a historic building that once stood as the cultural center for the African American community before the Civil War. At the time of its construction, church pews throughout the city were segregated, and the African American community sought a worship center of their own.
Although Maine abolished slavery in 1804 (intermarriage was legal as early as 1795), segregation and politics regarding African Americans were nonetheless common. The construction of the Abyssinian Meeting House gave the African American community their own cultural center and house of worship, which held a congregation for 86 years.
As a cultural center, the Abyssinian Congregational Church also served as social and educational functions until its closing in 1916. Listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places since 2006, the Abyssinian Meeting House is the third-oldest African-American meeting house in the United States.
History and Significance of the Abyssinian Meeting House
By all appearances, the Abyssinian Meeting House is a modest, vernacular wood-framed building. But from 1828 to the end of the Civil War, runaway slaves disembarking from ships anchored at the Maine State Pier sought the Abyssinian Meeting House for refuge, welcoming arms, and most importantly, a chance for freedom. It is important to remember that even in the north, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and 1850 called for civilians and bounty hunters to lawfully capture slaves and, often for a reward, return slaves to the Slave Master.1
This was not, however, the complete reason behind the construction of the Abyssinian Meeting House. With African Americans segregated in “Negro Pews” at the main churches in Portland, six men in 1826 published a letter in the Eastern Argus newspaper condemning the existing churches. These men included Christopher Christian Manuel, Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clement Thomson, Job L. Wentworth, and John Siggs. Two years later, Manuel and Ruby organized and incorporated the Abyssinian Religious Society, and 22 additionally African American residents helped establish the first congregation.
1828 also marked the year the Society appointed trustees and moved into the present-day Abyssinian Meet House.
From the beginning, the Abyssinian Meeting House served a political function, and it would feature speakers, abolition and temperance meetings, and eventually the Female Benevolent Society and the Portland Union Anti-Slavery Society. As a self-employed hackman, founder Reuben Ruby transported slaves to the Abyssinian Meeting House, which served as an essential stop in the Underground Railroad’s northeastern track for escaped slaves fleeing to Canada.
After the Civil War and with the abolition of slavery, the Abyssinian Meeting House continued its congregational services and cultural activities for the African American community. However, it no longer stood as an educational center, as since 1856, African American students have attended integrated schools.
The Abyssinian Meeting House dissolved and most of the congregation moved to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1917. By 1924, the building was used for tenement housing, and it stayed this way until the building was seized for unpaid taxes in 1991. Seven years later, the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian bought the building, and by 2006, the Abyssinian Meeting House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2007, it was placed on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.2