Most Friends of the Bay can agree with the words, “I love Casco Bay.” In one way or another, the Bay is an important and special place to many of us. It is a place we feel we belong, a place we call home.
We know from history that some who have called the Bay home, even for decades or generations, have not been treated with respect, dignity, or basic humanity. Knowing this history can help us understand where we are now and where we want to go.
One of these stories is of Malaga Island and the people who lived there.
Malaga is one of hundreds of islands in Casco Bay. It lies in the waters just off of the coast of Phippsburg near the mouth of the New Meadows River. Its 42 acres host rocky shores and a dense evergreen forest, like so much of coastal Maine.
If you were to visit Malaga a little more than a century ago, you would have met the people of a small, mixed-race fishing community. Historians say that many of the island’s residents could trace their ancestry to Benjamin Darling, a black man who owned and lived on Harbor Island, just a half-mile south of Malaga.
In the 1860s, some of Darling’s descendants and others settled on Malaga Island. At the time, islands in Maine were challenging to access and difficult places to live. For the most part, no one would mind if a group of people settled down on an uninhabited island like Malaga.
By the turn of the century, Malaga was home to many families and had a population of just under fifty people. Life on the island would have been similar to that of other small fishing communities in Maine. While fishing provided income and sustenance for many, there was other activity on the island, too.
Children attended school at the home of islander James McKenney. When a schoolhouse was built in 1909, some said the education there was better than on the mainland. There was religious life as well, where community members would attend church in Phippsburg. When bad weather prevented travel, carpenter and mason John Eason would preach, earning him the nickname “the deacon.” Another industrious resident named Eliza Griffin worked on and off the island doing laundry, housekeeping, and fishing. She was said to have more income than any man on Malaga.
While the community on Malaga was established and growing, other forces in Maine were shifting that would eventually lead to the eviction of all residents.
In the early 1900s, racism and growing belief in eugenics were widespread. Newspapers began reporting sensational and dehumanizing stories focused on Malaga, describing the community as immoral, disgusting, and a stain on Casco Bay. Economic downturn was also at play. The decline of shipbuilding and other industries had towns like Phippsburg and the State of Maine focused on developing tourism, which was thought to be incompatible with the presence of a working class, mixed-race fishing community.
Ownership of Malaga Island, rising social tensions, and political retribution are among the other factors that may have contributed to the state’s eviction order, demanding all residents leave the island by July 1, 1912. Some residents resettled on the mainland or other islands. No homes were provided for the families, and many dismantled their houses and carried them away to rebuild elsewhere.
Eight Malaga residents, including the Marks family, were forcibly institutionalized at the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded (today, Pineland Farms). The group was separated by sex upon their arrival and many of them died there in the years immediately following. The School is also the resting place of those who lived and died on Malaga, as the State of Maine removed and reburied all remains from the Island’s cemetery.
For generations after the eviction, many descendants of the Malaga Island community hid their ancestry. The slur, “Malagite,” continued to be used throughout Maine.
More recently these sentiments have shifted. Today, more people know the story of Malaga Island. Hundreds of Mainers across the state can trace their ancestry back to the island’s community, and for some it is no longer a source of shame, but one of pride.
Marnie Childress is a descendant of Benjamin Darling and grew up in South Portland. Marnie was often on the water as a child. It wasn’t unusual for her father to take her clamming in the early morning before school. For Marnie, being on the water near Malaga today is a way to connect to her heritage, even alongside its painful history.
“All the islands of Casco Bay have their secrets of the past,” says Marnie. “When I am on a boat around Malaga, it’s like being on the water with my dad again. I just feel the history there, and it makes me love it even more.”
We hope that by sharing the story of Malaga Island today, when racism and prejudice continue to affect communities that surround Casco Bay, more of us will learn that racism does have roots in this region.
We believe that the health of Casco Bay is tied to the health of the communities that surround it. A healthy Casco Bay is one where anyone is welcome, one where we can all belong and call this place home.
To learn more about Malaga Island and its history, you can follow the links below.
Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold, radio story by Rob Rosenthal & Kate Philbrick
Explore Malaga Island – Educational Materials, Maine State Museum
Malaga Island: An Overview of its Cultural and Natural History, Maine Coast Heritage Trust