History of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine Creating the Center

The Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine can trace its inception back to 1994, when Provost Mark Lapping formed an ad hoc committee to discuss accepting a large collection of books, journals, posters, photographs, artifacts, and the papers of Gerald E. Talbot (first African American to serve in the Maine State Legislature). By creating the African American Archives of Maine, the Provost saw the opportunity for the University to embrace diversity by building a resource and attract in a more diverse academic community. Three years later, based on the initiative of faculty, staff, and students, the Provost created the Gay and Lesbian Archives. By July of 1997, this commitment to diversity was formalized when the University of Maine System Board of Trustees accepted the University of Southern Maine’s proposal to unite the African American Archives, the Gay and Lesbian Archives, the Franco-American Heritage Collection at the Lewiston-Auburn College, and a planned Jewish Archives, into a Center for Diversity in Maine.

Jean Byers Sampson and Shepard Lee

The Center was named after Jean Byers Sampson to honor her life-long work for diversity, civil rights and liberties, and academic freedom. Before Sampson moved to Maine in 1952, she had worked for the NAACP in New York, researching and writing a report on African Americans in the military. Her 1947 report was circulated in government offices and helped lead to the desegregation of the armed forces. Her experience helped to found the Central Maine branch of the NAACP where she served as president during the 1960s. Sampson also served on the Maine Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission which did several studies on discrimination in rental housing in Maine. Sampson was Executive Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union in the late seventies.

Sampson served on the University of Maine’s Board of Trustees, and as Chair, led the Board to support a homosexual conference at the University and defy the Governor when he demanded the Board’s resignation. In accepting the American Association of University Professors Alexander Meiklejohn Freedom Award on behalf of the Board, Sampson said “The University must be accountable to society, and it must be responsive to its needs….” It is this understanding of the university’s role in society that made it fitting to name a center to document and study diversity after her.

It was Shepard Lee who first suggested to Provost Lapping that the Center be named to honor Jean Byers Sampson. Naming the Center that would hold the African American, Jewish, Franco-American, and Gay and Lesbian collections after Jean Byers Sampson would honor her lifelong work in Maine. As USM President Pattenaude later wrote “Jean represented all that is good in humanity in her respect for all people. University of Southern Maine will be proud to be home to a center devoted to issues of diversity and pluralism…”

Early Programming

Even though the Center existed mostly on paper in the early years, programming was always a priority. In February 1997, the African American Archives of Maine hosted a talk by Yolanda King, “Multicultural Diversity: The Next Frontier.” When Maureen Elgersman Lee became faculty scholar for the African American Archives in 1997, she established a newsletter, The Griot. The first issue was published in February 1998 and announced the first annual exhibition from the collection, “’What Shall I tell My Children?’: Selected Pieces from the African American Archives of Maine.”

Meanwhile, a committed group of USM faculty, staff, and students as well as community members were creating programming around the new Gay and Lesbian Archives. An opening reception for the archives was held in February 1999 with a performance by Brian Freeman of material from his play “Civil Sex.” In 2001, the Franco-American Heritage Collection hosted an exhibition “Hands & Harmony: The Culture of Work and Music in Lewiston’s Franco-American Community” in the Area Gallery of University of Southern Maine’s Portland Campus.

The emphasis on programming has remained steady. In 2004, the Sampson Center was visited by seven University classes, created three exhibitions, and sponsored eight programs.

Faculty Scholars

It is the work of the faculty scholars that has ensured the Sampson Center would produce high quality programming. Each collection has a faculty member who is responsible for collection development, interpretation, programming, and outreach. Maureen Elgersman Lee was hired in 1997 as Assistant Professor of History and faculty scholar for the African American Archives of Maine. In the fall of 2000, Barry Rodrigue became Assistant Professor of Arts & Humanities / Franco-American Studies for USM’s Lewiston Auburn College where he also serves the Franco-American Heritage Collection. These full-time faculty were joined in 2001 by adjunct history professors and scholars-in-residence Abraham J. Peck and Howard Solomon. Along with serving the Jewish Archives, Peck is director of the Academic Council for Post-Holocaust Christian and Jewish Studies. Howard Solomon, after having retired from Tufts University, helped to build the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Collection. In 2016, Wendy Chapkis, Professor of Sociology and Women & Gender Studies, was appointed the
Faculty Scholar in the LGBTQ+ Collection; over the next three years, she created the “Querying
the Past: Maine LGBTQ Oral History Project” which has now collected over 70 life histories.

It is not just their individual skills and experience as scholars that makes their contributions to the Sampson Center so important, but their joint work. Each collection has its constituency, but the scholars have reached out to the entire Maine community by speaking for academic research and the importance of civil liberties and a diverse society. In January 2003, the four scholars wrote a strong statement in support of Lewiston’s Somali community. In November 2004, three of the scholars did a presentation “Memory, History, Diversity: Harvesting the Resources of the Sampson Center.” In 2005, they presented the Sampson Center’s first annual event, “The Ties that Bind: Experiences of Family in Maine, 1900 to the Present.” The event combined an exhibition, lectures, and a published catalogue. The scholars are also reaching out to public school teachers by offering a workshop through the Maine Humanities Council to introduce the Sampson Center into the classroom.

Currently, there are no faculty scholars.

Changing Names and Building the Organization

Although the name of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine has never changed, the names of the collections have changed to reflect the best academic practices. The term “collection” has been substituted for “archives” since it better expresses the nature of the material being preserved. The current names are the African American Collection of Maine, the Judaica Collection, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer+ Collection. In 2003, the Franco-American Heritage Collection was removed from the Sampson Center’s administration. The Franco-American Heritage Collection is geographically separated from the Sampson Center, and it is funded by and reports to University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston Auburn College.

In 2003-04, the Sampson Center had a rebirth fueled by changes in personnel and the construction of a new facility. The Sampson Center has been administratively part of Special Collections, a department in the University Libraries, which report to the Provost. In 2000, Joseph S. Wood became Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. Under his leadership, the Head of Special Collections, Susie R. Bock, was appointed Director of the Sampson Center in 2002. During that year and the next, working with the Sampson Scholars, the Director, and the Interim Library Director Zark VanZandt, Wood created a new structure for the Sampson Center. While this administrative structure was being created, a new facility for Special Collections was built on the 6th floor of the Glickman Library. The new facility would have offices for the scholars, a reading room for the public to use the collections, a seminar room to host classes, work areas for the Special Collections staff, and a stacks area with climate control and state-of-the-art security. The new facility opened in April of 2004, and in May the Sampson Center Board met for the first time.

Until 2017 the Sampson Center Board consisted of University faculty, staff, and students, as well as members of the local community. Initially chaired by Bob Greene, retired AP reporter and local historian, the Board focused on strengthening the Sampson Center so that it can accomplish its mission. The exhibitions, classes, and programming created by the Sampson Center in 2004-2005 is a testament to the Board’s success.

The Sampson Board was disbanded in 2017, but the work of the Center has continued by the Special Collections department and the advisory committees for the Judaica and LGBTQ+ Collections.

Updated: September 2022