In February, 1828, twenty-two black residents took steps to formally organize the Abyssinian Religious Society as an all African American congregation. By July 2, they had incorporated the society, appointed trustees, and moved to build a new meeting house of their own. The congregation became involved in the political issues of the day, especially those that affected African Americans. For example, in 1842, the Portland Union Antislavery Society was founded, and the first meeting was chaired by Rev. Samuel C. Fessenden (son of Samuel Fessenden). Later, the Abyssinian Meeting House played a role in the Underground Railroad.
Because of its easy access by rail and sea, Portland developed as one of the northernmost hubs of the Underground Railroad system. Black and white activists in Portland provided safe houses and refuge for slaves and helped organize escape routes to England and Canada. The leaders and members of the Abyssinian Church actively participated in concealing, supplying, and transporting runaway slaves. Lewis G. Clark (1812-1897), a runaway slave from Kentucky, provided a first-hand account of the horrors of slavery in a speech at the Abyssinian Meeting House and also during that meeting the noted Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) also spoke from the pulpit.
The Abyssinian Meeting House is one of the few frame public buildings from the early 19th century to survive the 1866 Portland fire. The fire destroyed some 1,500 buildings (one third of the city) and left 12,000 people homeless. The Abyssinian Meeting House was saved, largely through the efforts of William Wilberforce Ruby (1834-1906), a black fireman and son of Reuben Ruby, who reportedly protected the building by draping the roof in wet blankets. Only two older African American meeting houses are known to survive in the northeast, the African Meeting House in Boston (1806), and the small, vernacular, African Meeting House on Nantucket (1827), both initially Baptist houses of worship. Inasmuch as this is the only firmly established, pre-Civil war, African-American house of worship in the state, it holds a unique position in the history of Maine.
By the end of the nineteenth century, membership at the Meeting House had declined as the number of religious institutions in Portland increased and the black population became smaller and more dispersed. The wreck of the steamship Portland in November, 1898, resulted in the loss of nineteen adult male members of the Congregation (including two trustees) who worked on the ship. From that point on, the level of activity at the church was minimal although the congregation as a formal entity survived until 1916. The Abyssinian Meeting House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 3, 2006. Extensive research and documentation has revealed that the structure continues to be an important source of data for investigating African American religious and social practices in 19th century Maine.
Criterion D: Ethnic Heritage, Religion, Social History, Archaeology (Historic - Non Aboriginal) Criteria Consideration A: Religious Property Statewide Significance The former Abyssinian Meeting House is historically significant as the religious, educational, and cultural center for Portlandís nineteenth-century African American population. It is the earliest religious property associated with a black congregation in Maine (1828). The property also hosted a school for African American children, a residence for the minister, and may have been the site of a community spring or well. Prior to and during the Civil War members of the Abyssinian congregation were associated with abolitionist activities in Portland. Although greatly modified by conversion to apartments in the early twentieth century, the Abyssinian Meeting House survives in its original location and has deep roots and associations within the neighborhood. While the building itself is significant as the location of African American religious practices, social and community life, the lot upon which it sits is undisturbed land harboring archaeological sites that have the potential to illuminate the history of Portlandís African American community. This property was placed in the National Register of Historic Places at the state level of significance as a source of above-ground and below-ground (archaeological) information that will help to round out the understanding of nineteenth-century Portlandís African-American population in the areas of religion, education, social and cultural history, land use, and architectural practices.