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Hidden History of African-American Contributions to Rev. War in Portland
02/28/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter
Herb Adams

As another Black History Month draws to a close, we turn our attention to one of Maine's forgotten stories. In the corner of a cemetery in downtown Portland lie four gravestones that tell an unusual tale - one that involves the little-known role African Americans played in the birth of the United States. As part of our ongoing series about Maine's hidden history, Tom Porter took up a stroll up there one recent snowy morning in the company of local historian Herb Adams.

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revolutionary war graves 1

Tom Porter: "We're at Portland's eastern cemetery, standing on the graves of Lewis Shephered, Cato Shattuck, Plato McLellan, James Bowes, all revolutionary war soldiers, all buried here in Portland. What makes them so special?"
Herb Adams: "Well as we stand here above these graves, these are all Mainers who fought in the American revolution, but that simple statement, once you stop it, becomes as deep in irony as the snow is around these stones right now, on this February day. These are African Americans who fought in the American Revolution. Some of them went away from Maine as slaves, fought in the way, returned as slaves. You wonder whose freedom did they fight for?"
TP: "And you may wonder now why they would choose to fight for a country that enslaves them. What motivated them?"
HA: "And who is to know? Only their service can speak for itself. I think they were motivated by the same things that anyone would be, given the time, the moment and the opportunity. They were young men anxious to prove manhood, and to serve a cause."
TP: "Some African Americans were promised freedom if they fought, I know they raised an entire regiment in Rhode Island. Was that the case with any of these? Did they have a carrot at the end of a stick, as it were?"
HA: "In one case, the carrot was even less than half a carrot. Romeo, the slave of the minister for Falmouth, now Portland, Maine, Thomas Smith, was promised that he could go off and fight in the Revolution in exchange for half his wages, going to his master, Reverend Smith, and if he survived the war, he would have his freedom. There were several 'ifs' in that sentence that must have given the young man pause, but he went. Romeo fought and survived and came home."
TP: "But he's not one of these four here."
HA: "We do not know who is here. The next irony is the fact that this is called the 'Colored Ground' of the cemetery. It's tucked in a corner with very stones, and a lot of open space. The African-American community was buried in a segregated fashion, in other words these black solders could not be buried beside a white soldier they had once fought beside, the next irony that heaps these graves."
TP: "These are the four that we know about."
HA: "These are the four that we know about , and there are others whose graves are not as well-marked. The only original stone is that of Lewis Shepherd, who died in 1833. A very popular old gentleman, well-remembered by the children of the neighborhood."

The state of Massachusetts, which included Maine during the Revolutionary War, ended slavery in 1783. But of course, as Adams pointed out, these African Americans didn't know that at the time they volunteered.

revolutionary war graves 2"How could they you know? How do we know what lies in our future? But all of them lived to know it, or most of them did live beyond the war, many of them received small pensions" Adams said. "The American government didn't give revolutionary war pensions 'til well after the war. Some of them lived long enough to receive bounty land, that is lots of land that were granted in the American west by a grateful government, which few of them ever saw, they would sell it to a middle man."

Just a few short steps away from these four headstones is a huge monument for 19-year old Sergeant Alonzo Stinson who was the first Portlander to die in the civil war. He was killed in 1861 at the battle of Bull Run. It was a different war, and Stinson was white, but Adams said his story shares a connection to Shepherd, Bowes, Shattuck and McLellan.

"His body was never recovered," said Adams. "So for many years he was merely a memory. Then in 1908 they erected this enormous monument, a big granite effigy of a knapsack, a civil war knapsack. And they erected in on, I believe what they thought was open empty land in this corner of the cemetery, not knowing that it was the so-called 'colored ground.'"

In this final irony, said Adams, the first son of Portland to die in the war to end slavery, ended up being memorialized almost on top of the graves of African-Americans who themselves had fought in the war for America's freedom decades earlier.

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