Re-Site: A Slower Ontology
A Slower Ontology
77 Newbury Street
Asata Radcliffe’s installation will feature projections, lighting, and a mimicking of historical objects to tell a story about two Civil War soldiers, John and Henry Niles, two of the eleven children of the former homeowners Abraham and Harriet Niles. This piece seeks to express the impression of the blurred boundary of citizen or exile, the complex and fraught existence of the Black Civil War soldier, the phoenix that rose between enslavement and annihilation. The Niles House is a rare surviving structure of the Great Fire of 1866, and the home was a major nexus of Southern Maine’s Black community in the mid-nineteenth century.
A note on historical narratives
The histories that ground the Re-Site have been cultivated from primary and secondary sources, accessible with thanks to the on-going efforts of collecting organizations and libraries, community members, and historians. The stories that define people and place shift in the currents that pull our socio-cultural priorities: they ebb and flow. Our knowing is reliant on those who have preserved records and have previously woven those pieces together, but we must always be mindful of the records not archived, the voices obscured and silenced, and the perspectives we have neglected and forgotten. History is happening right now.
Site History: Abraham and Harriet Niles House
This site is the historic home of a Black family, Abraham and Harriet Niles, in the nineteenth century and offers a lens to explore Black families, community, and worship in Portland. The house is located in close proximity to the historic Abyssinian Meeting House; it is in the historic India Street neighborhood–an important area in the “pre-history” of Portland; the house survived the Great Fire of 1866; and, in the twentieth century, the house was occupied by Italian immigrants, representing a significant transition of neighborhood demographics. In recent years, this neighborhood has been site to major construction including the erection of high-priced condominiums, hotels, parking garages, and more, representing a major gentrification of the area.
Abraham and Harriet Niles
Abraham Walker Niles (1808-1852) was a Deacon at the Abyssinian Meeting house, as well as a mariner, laborer, and window washer. Niles married Harriet C. Lewis circa 1831 and the couple had eleven children, including one son, also named Abraham Walker Niles, who died in 1857 from consumption at the age of 17, and two other sons who purportedly served during the Civil War in the 43rd US Colored Troops (John and Henry, the latter of which died from disease in VA in 1864). Niles left Maine for California during the Gold Rush, and died aboard a vessel departing from Panama to San Francisco. Niles bought the property on Sumner Street (now Newbury Street) as early as 1835,and his family resided there from 1846 onward. Harriet C. L. Niles continued to live in the home after his death.
Maine’s Visible Black History claims this house was seized to pay a judgment in 1838, to settle court debt stemming from an Abyssinian-related slander of some sort re Rev. Samuel Chase. The property seized for the court settlement doesn’t appear to be Niles’ at the time of seizure, so there are some inconsistencies in the various historical records due to land records, ownership (connection between Niles family and the Abyssinian Meeting House), and the change of street names and numbers.
The Niles House is a rare survivor of the Great Fire of 1866, when most of the surrounding buildings were destroyed.
Abyssinian Meeting House and Black Community in Portland
This site is in close proximity to the Abyssinian Meeting House. The Abyssinian is most notable for its role as an early African-American cultural nexus, as well as one of the northernmost stops on the Underground Railroad. The original meeting house, which still stands today, is Maine’s oldest African-American church building, and the third oldest in the U.S. after Boston and Nantucket, Massachusetts. The church was the preeminent cultural center for the Black community in southern Maine during the nineteenth century, hosting worship and revivals, abolition and temperance meetings, speakers and concerts, the Female Benevolent Society, the Portland Union Anti-Slavery Society, and a school for Portland’s Black children until integration attempts in 1856.
In 1840, 402 Blacks lived in Portland. “A small group of Black seafarers in New England earned enough to purchase houses, or at least rent steadily and forestall disruptive moves. […] Black sailors in Portland, Maine, had a degree of residential and occupational stability atypical in larger cities such as Baltimore and New York.”
India Street Neighborhood
Prior to European colonization, the site of India Street was a footpath traveled by Indigeneous inhabitants, used to traverse the wooded peninsula. Early colonizers formed King Street, with a “settlement” located at what is now the corner of Hancock and Fore Streets. From the mid-seventeenth through late-eighteenth centuries, this area was the site of residential and military headquarters (Fort Loyal) and served as the center for pre-Portland “settlement,” then known as Falmouth or Falmouth’s Neck. This site saw ongoing violence against Indigenous people; European colonizers inhabited and abandoned this area multiple times due to war and famine until various factors coalesced to support their prosperity in various forms of commerce, including fishing, lumbering, and trade.
Italian Immigrant Community
By 1900, Frederick Tibbetts, a barber, lived at 77 Newbury Street, as did Richard Curtis, a teamster. In 1913 the building was home to Italian immigrants, Louis W. and Antonette Tripaldi. Louis was a barber who had been born in Naples, Italy, in 1876. In 1920, Camilo Profenno, a mason, lived in the house. The single family home at 77 Newbury Street was owned by Italian immigrants Raffaele and Mary Frascone in 1924, and was later occupied by other Italian families. By 1910, the city directory shows large numbers of Italians and Eastern European Jews living in the India Street neighborhood, alongside the earlier Irish immigrants. The 1920 Census, on Federal Street alone, lists the following countries of origin: Scotland, England, Ireland, Finland, Estonia, Sweden, Russia, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, and Canada. Residents claimed the following occupations: tailor, cutter in shirtwaist factory, junk shop, laborer for railroad and wharf, cabinet maker, and fruit peddler, among others.
House & Niles Family Resources
“77 Newbury Street, Portland, 1924,” photograph, City of Portland, Maine Memory Network. Accessible online: https://www.mainememory.net/artifact/65231
“Deacon Abraham W. Niles.” Find a Grave. Accessible online: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/204953479
Portland Directories. USM Digital Commons. Accessible online: https://digitalcommons.usm.maine.edu/por_directories/
Abyssinian Church Resources
“Portland, Maine, Abyssinian Church,” Collection History, Congregational Library & Archives. Accessible online: http://congregationallibrary.org/nehh/series1/PortlandMEAbyssinian
Neighborhood History Resources
Historic District Map Viewer, Portland map. City of Portland. Accessible online: https://portlandme.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=ffc13ea5162b4017bd6471c1405f3906
History of Portland’s India Street Neighborhood, Historic Preservation, City of Portland. Accessible online: http://www.portlandmaine.gov/DocumentCenter/View/4276/History-of-India-Street?bidId=
“African Americans.” Maine Encyclopedia. Accessible online: https://maineanencyclopedia.com/african-americans/
Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen In the Age of Sail. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. (Available via local library)
Home is Where I Make it Oral History Project. Digital Commons, USM. Accessible online: https://digitalcommons.usm.maine.edu/aa_hiwimi/
Kanes, Candace. “Blacks in Maine,” exhibit. Maine Memory Network. Accessible online: https://www.mainememory.net/sitebuilder/site/793/page/1203/display
Lee, Maureen Elgersman. “‘What they lack in numbers’ : locating Black Portland, 1870-1930” in Creating Portland: History and Place in Northern New England. Conforti, Joe, ed. Durham, NH: UNH Press, 2005. (Available via local library)
Price, H.H. and Gerald Talbot. Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People. Tilbury House Publishers, 2006. (Available via local library)
Portland Freedom Trail, brochure. Accessible online: https://www.mainehistory.org/PDF/walkingtourmap.pdf
Asata Radcliffe is a writer and multimedia artist. A California native, Asata received her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Antioch University in Los Angeles. She writes speculative fiction and essays. Her creative work culminates as multimedia collections of speculative art installation, merging writing, film, and form. Her work invites one to experience the interstitial spaces of speculative landscapes and surrealist futures. Concerned about the planet, her research includes topics of land ethics, futurism, and the nonlinear narratives of human existence. She currently lives and teaches in Portland, Maine.
77 Newbury Street is owned by Tracie Reed. SPACE extends its gratitude to Tracie for her generosity in supporting this project.