Honored Young Historian Tells Story of Malaga Island Injustice

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Noah Binette discusses his research on the story of poor people evicted from homes on Malaga Island in 1911. The event, which opened this season’s Sid Emery Memorial Forum, was held at Alfred Shaker Museum on Sunday, May 22.

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Attendees examine Binette’s prize-winning exhibit to learn details about the island people who lost their homes when Maine uprooted them.

York County student Noah Binette explained his study of an early 20th-century tragedy, involving about 40 poor but contented residents of the mid-coast Malaga Island near Phippsburg, for an audience of two dozen at Alfred Shaker Museum on Sunday, 5/22. His work on the project gained state and national prizes in highly competitive National History Day contests. Binette, who will be a senior at Noble High School in the fall, did the work in 2014 to address the contest theme “Rights and Responsibilities.”

His talk was the first in this season’s Sid Emery Memorial Forum, which is sponsored by the Shaker Museum and the Sanford-Springvale Historical Society. The talk was well received by his audience, whose members asked many questions. The event was free and open to the public. Treats were served after Binette’s talk; the talk was filmed by Patrick Bonsant of the Saco River public access TV station for wider dissemination.

In his presentation, Binette first described the competitions that led to his awards, and then told the story of Malaga Islanders using the title, “The Town That Maine Erased.”

It is not known how long people had lived on the island, but Binette said the inhabitants — black, white, and multi-racial — had been there for at least 100 years. They drew their livelihoods from the sea as fishermen, and on the nearby mainland as laborers in private homes and tourist spots. Early in the 20th century, the island had a schoolhouse where even some mainland children received schooling. Nevertheless, the people were evicted, their homes burned, and their cemetery moved elsewhere in what Binette, in his summary for the contest, called a “gross injustice perpetrated in 1911.”

In developing his Malaga report, Binette cited recurring threads embedded in the chain of events, such as journalistic pressure, widespread interest in eugenics (which linked physical qualities to mental and moral status), and public concern about the island as a financial burden (neither nearby town wanted responsibility for the island and its residents). Some mainland residents saw it as compromising tourism, and believed that a hotel might be built there after the island’s residents left.

Binette argued that the State of Maine, under Governor Frederick W. Plaisted, violated the inhabitants’ rights. The events “broke the state’s responsibility to protect and serve its citizens.” In 2010, then-Governor John Baldacci formally apologized to the evictees’ descendants. Some of their earlier family members had been institutionalized for the rest of their lives as mentally deficient, due to inappropriate and biased evaluations. Seventeen gravesites on the island had been disturbed and the remains removed to mainland sites. Binette and others contend that those remains should be returned to Malaga for reburial there.

For long years, though, descendants mostly wanted to forget the story, unwilling to have the stigma become their own burden before the public. During the last few years, however, changing views have brought the story more into public sight. The Maine State Historical Society, for one, presented an exhibit, “Fragmented Lives”, about what happened there. The exhibit drew much attention.

The second speaker in the Alfred Shaker Museum’s Speakers Series will be Tonya Shevenell, who filmed a replication of her immigrant ancestor’s walk in 1845 from Canada to resettlement in Biddeford, where he was the first permanent French-Canadian resident. Her presentation will take place on August 21. For further information about this and other talks in the series, check the Museum web site at www.alfredshakermuseum.com/events-workshops/speakers-series/.

Museum Hours:

Museum Hours: 1 PM - 4 PM on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and by appointment.

Closing for the season on November 15.

Admission: Free. Donations are gratefully accepted.

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