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USM honors Gerald Talbot, Maine’s first African-American legislator, with Talbot Fellow 

Gerald Talbot and USM President Glenn Cummings

The University of Southern Maine honored the extraordinary life and work of Gerald E. Talbot, Maine's first African-American legislator, with the creation of a new teaching fellow, who is examining race in Maine.

Gerald Talbot, his wife, Anita, and three of their daughters -- Robin Talbot, Regina Phillips and Rachel Talbot Ross -- all attended a standing-room-only ceremony Sept. 10th held at the Glickman Library on the Portland Campus.

"Today, we are celebrating Jerry Talbot's life work," USM President Glenn Cummings said. He highlighted decades of effort by the Bangor native, as a civil rights activist and a political force in Maine. He became the state's first President of Portland's NAACP and led the passage of the Maine Fair Housing Bill and the Maine Human Rights Act. In the Maine Legislature, he championed laws protecting migrant workers, fair housing and tribal sovereignty. He would also sponsor Maine's first gay rights legislation.

Talbot Fellow Lance Gibbs"Thank you, Jerry, and thank you, Anita, for all the work you have done to make Maine a better state and the world a better place," Cummings said.

USM Provost Jeannine Uzzi introduced Talbot Fellow Lance Gibbs. A history lecturer at USM since 2017, Gibbs is working to better understand race and ethnic studies, particularly in Maine. A key resource for Gibbs is the Gerald E. Talbot Collection. Donated to USM in 1995 and digitally archived by the university as part of its African American Collection, the Talbot collection includes articles books, photographs, recordings, artifacts and scrapbooks. Most relate directly to Maine.

"It's imperative at this moment -- in the history of USM and the history of Portland -- that USM begin to lead on matters of equity and social justice," Uzzi said. "The Talbot fellowship is a mark of our desire to be in this area. It's an investment in our special collections. It's an investment in research. It's an investment in budding new scholars and in areas of research that are of critical importance to the university."

Too few students understand that Maine played a role in such historic events as the civil rights movement, Gibbs said.

"Normally when we talk about civil rights in the United States, it's all about the south," he said. He hopes to add to what they already know. "It's like, 'Have you ever thought about further north?"

To the Talbot family, the event marked the ongoing need for education.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, a Maine legislator, spoke about the need for children to learn about African-American history in Maine and the extraordinary journey her father has made in his lifetime.

The event was held on the sixth floor of USM's Glickman library -- a former industrial building that was renovated in the mid-1990s. Attendees included several current and former legislators, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and many others.

"Today brings my father to a place where he never dreamed possible, for he used to be the janitor in this building when it was the Johnson Supply Company," Ross said. "My father cleaned the first two floors of this building."

"His story lives on," Ross said. "What you say and you teach us and what Dr. Gibbs will show is that each and every child in our great state will feel that they, too, can contribute, that they, too, have a story, that they, too, are part of a living history that makes our country great. And their story is worth preserving."

Gerald E. Talbot
Gerald Talbot has been a major leader in Maine's struggle for civil rights from the early 1960s when he was already a civil rights activist. He was one of several Mainers attending the March on Washington in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. One year later, Talbot was elected the first President of Portland's NAACP and played a leading role in passing the Maine Fair Housing Bill and the Maine Human Rights Act.

In 1968, Governor Ken Curtis appointed Gerald Talbot to a Human Rights Task Force, which was followed four years later by his election to the Maine House. As the first African-American elected to the Maine House, Talbot championed legislation on the treatment of migrant workers, fair housing, tribal sovereignty, creating a holiday in Martin Luther King's honor, and sponsoring Maine's first gay rights legislation.

In 1995, the University of Southern (USM) conferred on Gerald Talbot an honorary Doctor in Humane Letters degree and dedicated an auditorium in his name: the Gerald E. Talbot Lecture Hall.

Gerald E. Talbot Collection
Throughout his life, Gerald Talbot collected documents, books, photographs and objects with significance to the African American community, both in Maine and beyond. These materials documenting black history, heritage and culture, were exhibited often throughout Maine, including at the State House.

In 1995, in order to ensure that the materials would be forever accessible to the public for educational purposes, Talbot donated his collection to the Special Collections of the University of Southern Maine, where it serves as the backbone of the African American Collection of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine.

The Collection includes Talbot's personal papers, records of his terms in the Maine House of Representatives, his work with the NAACP in Maine and with the State Board of Education. It also contains books, serials, posters, artifacts and photographs documenting African Americans in the United States, with an emphasis on Maine. The date range of the items in the Collection is from the 1800s to the 1990s.

Talbot Fellow Lance L.O. Gibbs, Ph.D.
In 2019, Lance Gibbs, Ph.D. was appointed the University's first Talbot Fellow for a three year term. Dr. Gibbs will serve as the primary academic point of contact for the Talbot and African American Collections, working with USM faculty and staff to encourage more students and community members to study and utilize the Collections.

In addition to conducting research on the Collections, Dr. Gibbs will also work with the Coordinator of Special Collections and the Talbot family, and will publish and create public events and exhibits.

Dr. Gibbs teaches courses in the fields of Race and Ethnic Studies within the History Department at the University of Southern Maine. His educational background includes a Ph.D. in American Culture Studies and an M.A. in Sociology from Bowling Green State University, as well as an MSc and a BSc in Sociology from the University of West Indies, Mona.

Learn more about the event from coverage from a variety of media outlets: Portland Press Herald, the Sun Journal, Maine Public, WCSH-TV and WGME-TV.

Story by Daniel Hartill, Photos by Alan Bennett // Office of Public Affairs