A Convenient Soldier: The Black Guards of Maine
September 22, 2020
New Maine Historical Society exhibition reveals how Black soldiers guarded vital Maine train routes in WWII.
Portland, Maine: Maine Historical Society (MHS) opens A Convenient Soldier: The Black Guards of Maine on Wednesday, September 23, 2020 for a limited engagement in the Showcase Gallery. Created in collaboration with guest curator Asata Radcliffe, the exhibition features never-before exhibited historic photographs and compelling stories of WWII African American army soldiers, known as “Black Guards” who the US Army sent to defend important Maine railways from terrorist attacks from 1941-1945.
The gallery installation examines the day-to-day lives of these loyal citizen-soldiers who stood watch during a time when they experienced racial discrimination and segregation while remaining in service to their country. The exhibition brings the topic of race relations in Maine to the current day, as Radcliffe weaves her experiences as a Black and Indigenous person in Maine, starting with her first year here in 2017, when the Ku Klux Klan distributed recruitment flyers in her new hometown of Freeport. Originally from California, Radcliffe is a writer and multimedia artist living in Portland. She encountered the story of the Black Guards during the first Monson Artist Residency, for which she was nominated in 2018.
“I wasn’t looking for anything about the Black Guards,” she says. “I went into the Monson Historical Society looking for Indigenous history and I stumbled upon this short essay by Bill Sawtelle. When my residency was over, a lot of people wanted to know how my experience was. So, I started talking about the research I had started. Whenever I talked about the Black Guards, people wanted to know more…I started thinking maybe this is something I need to put more energy into. Once that sunk in, then I began to feel obligated to do it.”
Radcliffe reflects on the many images of young soldiers her investigation unearthed. “As I look at these men who were deployed to guard the railways of Maine, they lived in a boxcar. They didn’t have housing. We know how Maine winters are. This is another example of how we treat our soldiers. Their presence here was transitory. So far, I haven’t come across any information that pointed to anyone taking steps to make a permanent home for them.”
She adds, “You know, there were some people in towns who were nice to them - the wife would make a pie and the husband would walk it over. But they had to go into town just to get water, they had no bathrooms. I cannot imagine how it was for them.”
A Convenient Soldier: The Black Guards of Maine augments the ongoing MHS Bicentennial exhibition State of Mind: Becoming Maine, which explores Maine Statehood through the experiences of the Wabanaki, Acadien-French, Black, and English-speaking communities. Both exhibits are also online, but the onsite A Convenient Soldier exhibition is an immersive experience with original WWII objects that are not easily replicated online, and where visitors will feel as if they are walking down a train trestle, and experiencing the soldiers' lives guarding a bridge in the 1940s.
Radcliffe became interested in working with Maine Historical Society after her experiences viewing MHS’s first Bicentennial exhibition, Holding up the Sky: Wabanaki People, Culture, History & Art, the precursor to State of Mind: Becoming Maine which is currently on exhibit. “That show is striving to see Maine from a clear perspective and not just a crafted narrative of what we are used to seeing. There is so much we all need to learn about the people who were here before everyone else, the Indigenous people of Maine. I am working hard to tell the story of the Black Guards in alignment with the other storytellers in the exhibition. I am so thankful that I was asked to be a part of it.”
Onsite admission to MHS exhibitions is available through a timed ticket, appointment-based process. Additional guidelines are in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and maintain a safe environment for guests and collections. Admission is free for MHS members. See more details on our Current Exhibitions page, including links to view the exhibitions online.
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The Maine Historical Society promotes the understanding and enjoyment of Maine history.