The SS Portland and Portland’s African American Community

Portland’s Abyssinian church was dissolved in 1916. Although the SS Portland had sank some 18 years previous many historians see a connection between the two events. When the Portland sank on November 27th, 1898 seventeen of the church’s members and two deacons perished. More widely, the African American population of Portland was decimated, literally. A total of approximately thirty individuals out of a population of three hundred were lost. An article printed in The Portland Daily Press on December 5th, 1898 aptly noted the church and community's loss. “The Abyssinian Congregational church suffered more losses in the recent wreck than any other congregation in the city, having lost 19 of its parishioners, and last evening memorial services were held which were attended by a large audience and were conducted by the pastor Rev. J.A. Smythe.” In fact, almost all of the SS Portland’s crew members who resided in Portland were African Americans.

Of the estimated 192 passengers and crew who perished onboard the ill-fated SS Portland why were African Americans disproportionately represented? Although some of these individuals were passengers aboard the Portland many of them were members of the ship’s crew. They were employed as saloonmen, porters and stewardesses, and in a variety of other shipboard endeavors. According to Jeffery Bolster, author of Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, the maritime trades provided African Americans with stability that was often difficult for them to obtain on land. Close to half of Portland’s male African American population was employed in the maritime trades as fishermen and longshoremen:

Free Blacks found it exceedingly difficult to acquire productive land, and they invariably faced discrimination in most trades. With few options for employment, free sailors of color from Boston argued in 1788 that seafaring was one calling in which “thay might get a hanceum livehud for themselves and theres.” Black New Englanders thus turned to the sea to hold families together, acquire property, and attain respectability… Seafaring, then, meant something very different for black men and white men, especially in the early nineteenth century. White sailors – whether gentlemen’s sons inspired to dare “an insight into the mysteries of a sailor’s life,” ambitious boys eager to gain a command, or “rebels who left the land in flight and fear” – were geographically mobile, unmarried, and unlikely to stick with the sea unless promoted. Black sailors were older than their white shipmates; more rooted in their homeports; more likely to be married; more likely to persist in going to sea; and more likely to define themselves with dignity as respectable men because seafaring enabled at least some of them to provide for their families.

It was the African American sailor’s relative stability as family men and bread winners that made them attractive to prospective employers.

The story of Fred Will, one of the black men who perished when the Portland sank is compelling and instructive. The following was published in the Portland Daily Press on December 3rd, 1898:

Fred Will, the third cook of the steamer Portland, will be remembered by the men who served on the USS Montauk as the ward room servant, who was a universal favorite of both the officers and the men. He was born on one of the French Islands of the West Indies and was a magnificent swimmer. He could swim faster, farther, and stay in the water longer then any other man on the ship. If any man could have saved himself by swimming Will could certainly have done it. The men of the Montauk’s crew hope that Will’s body will be recovered as they intend to have him brought to Portland for burial if such a thing is possible.

Clearly there was a great deal of affection for Fred Will and his former crew thought highly of him. Will is a perfect example of a black man who found social and economic stability as a man employed in maritime occupations, first as the ward room servant aboard the USS Montauk and later as a cook aboard the SS Portland. Another quote from the Portland Daily Press, dated December 5th, is equally poignant:

Body No. 8, that of a young colored man, received Saturday night on whose clothes was the name S.H. Smith, proved to be Samuel H. Smith, a salloonman on the Portland for about four years. He was identified finally by a young woman said to have been his sweetheart.

So it was that many black families who resided in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood of Portland lost a loved one, often a family provider, on November 27th, 1898 when the SS Portland slipped beneath the waves of Massachusetts Bay. The Abyssinian Church was entered upon the National Register of Historic Places on February 3rd, 2006. The church is currently being restored after years of neglect. To view photographs of the restoration visit www.abyme.org