Special Collections

African American Collection History

The African American Collection is part of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine of the University of Southern Maine Library’s Special Collections.

The African American presence in Maine dates from the United States’ early colonial period. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, strong African American communities in Portland, Bangor, and other areas, have struggled for prosperity, civil rights, and equality, and have made important contributions to the culture and economy of the state. There are no other collections of extensive breadth or depth that reflect the presence of this community. The University of Southern Maine Library has established and is developing a broad-based collection of manuscripts, printed works, visual material, audio material, and artifacts representing the full historical and cultural record of the AfricanAmerican experience in Maine and its connections with the experience of African Americans regionally and nationally.

The mission of the African American Collection is as follows: to provide a repository for the collection and preservation of a variety of records documenting Maine’s African Americans; to emphasize the importance of such material; organize and catalog this material making it available to scholars, teachers, students of all ages, and the general public; to sponsor educational programs and exhibitions within and beyond the University of Southern Maine about Maine’s African American community and history; to generate scholarship; and, to work with other institutions in reaching the above goals.


The African American Archives of Maine (original name of the Collection) was inspired by Gerald E. Talbot. Mr. Talbot was the first African American elected to the Maine State legislature and his family has been in Maine since the eighteenth century. As Mr. Talbot explained in April 1994:

“It is because of my long involvement in civil rights in Maine and New England and my deep interest and involvement in my Black culture and history, that I have collected and preserved pieces of that black history, nationally and locally, for others to see and learn from.”

Another inspiration came from the documentary Anchor of the Soul that focused attention on the struggle to maintain a black community in New England. Shoshana Hoose, who was largely responsible for researching and making the documentary, and Gerald Talbot began meeting with officials for the University of Southern Maine in 1994. They wanted to build a collection that would document and preserve African American culture and history. In 1995 Mr. Talbot donated his collection to the University and it became the basis of the African American Archives of Maine. Not surprisingly, Talbot’s gift was followed by material donated by Anchor of the Soul filmmakers Ms. Hoose and Karin Odlin.

In 1997 the University hired a faculty scholar to interpret the collection and to encourage research based on the Archives. Also in that year, the University, as part of its commitment to diversity, established the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine. One of its goals is to collect and preserve primary and secondary research materials on the experience of diverse groups in Maine. It was only natural that the African American Archives of Maine become one of the four major collections of the new Center.

In 2002, the African American Archives of Maine became the African American Collection  It is administered by the University Library’s Special Collections and is open to the public.

Description of the African American Collection:
The Collection contains a variety of print, manuscript, and three-dimensional materials. The majority of the collections are paper based, including manuscripts, books, magazines, posters, and photographs; however, there is a significant collection of artifacts. In both the Gerald E. Talbot Collection and Lee Forest Collection there are objects from nineteenth- and twentieth-century popular culture, such as political and social buttons, cookie jars, and statues, which document images and perceptions of African Americans. There are also audio-visual materials, mostly created in the 1990s. One of the richest resources is the photographs in the Talbot Collection, which document African Americans in Maine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Much of the collection is geographically linked to Maine, but there are many items that are national in scope.