The crowded room at Casco Bay High School erupted into applause Feb. 4 when the Portland School Board voted unanimously to rename Riverton Elementary School the Gerald E. Talbot Community School, and all rose for a standing ovation.
Although everyone spoke in favor of the change before the vote, a look of amazement came over Talbot’s expressive face, evolving to one of gratitude and humility. His grandson, Demetrius Brown-Phillips, a second-grader at Riverton, leaned against him, absorbed in the moment.
Talbot, 88, approached the podium with the aid of a walker as the applause continued.
“Thank you so very, very much,” he said, squinting his eyes as he emphasized “very.” “I just never, ever thought that I would be here or that we’d be together and I would be getting what I’m getting.
“I thought it was impossible to be here, just – I thought it was impossible,” he said.
Talbot was born in Bangor, the eighth generation of Talbots to live in Maine. He later moved to Portland where he has remained with his wife and children. He became a civil rights leader and made state history in 1972 when he became the first African American elected to the state Legislature, as an at-large representative of the city, and later served on the state Board of Education.
In “Maine’s Visible Black History,” which he wrote with Harriet Price, he described Portland during the civil rights movement.
“The 1960s came in with turbulence, character, voice and an understanding of standing up and being counted,” Talbot wrote. “The time of being a second-class citizen and taking a back seat was over.”
During his tenure in the Legislature he led several human rights causes, championing Native American rights and gay rights, and successfully had the N-word removed from a dozen geographic place names in the state.
As president of the NAACP, Talbot fought for passage of the Fair Housing Bill in 1965, which addressed the discrimination faced by black people seeking rental housing.
He described his family’s experience of housing discrimination in the book:
“I had my own humiliating experience in trying to get housing for my family in Portland. In 1957, I found an apartment for us to move into after fixing it up. So, for several days, friends of ours worked doing that, when one day the landlord came by for a visit to see how we were doing. The next day I received a phone call on my job and it was the landlord telling me that we would have to move. He said that several of his neighbors had told him that they didn’t want Negroes in the neighborhood, so he felt that he was forced to ask us to move. So before we moved in, we were thrown out because of racism and discrimination and the color of our skins. I am a light-skin black person, which is why I was able to secure this rent; the landlord thought I was white.”
Talbot wrote that he was lucky to find an apartment on Munjoy Hill, which they rented for nine years. But when that building was set to be demolished and the family had to move again, they found themselves in the same position, living for months out of boxes.
Whenever they went to view apartments the landlords would look at them and tell them they were rented. They took one landlord to court for discrimination in 1968 and won, the first Superior Court test of the new Fair Housing Law.
A friend of Talbot’s who was a member of the NAACP with him in the 1960s spoke during the public hearing Feb. 4 about her memories of Portland in the 1960s. Introducing herself, June McKenzie said, “I’m 90 years old and I’m Gerald Talbot’s buddy.”
“Until I was grown, I never knew that I was a part of such a great band of people,” McKenzie said. “The only time we ever heard of anybody of color, it was that they got in trouble and they put it in the paper, but they wouldn’t put anything good that you did or if they put anything good in the paper they would never mention that you were of color.”
In a 1966 NAACP report Talbot wrote about how he addressed this by issuing a statement to Portland-area news media advising against “always identifying the Negro in trouble.” He reported that he got the media’s cooperation in resolving the problem, and has seen numerous examples of its success.
McKenzie continued sharing memories of the Civil Rights Movement.
“We marched and cried, and died and prayed and did everything to make for a better place,” she said. “We got out there and did it day after day, week after week, year after year, with no thought of being paid for it, but just to make things better for our kids and your kids. So I think it’s time that the city of Portland recognizes one of our own before we’re gone.”
Several other people rose to share stories about Talbot and to support renaming the school in his honor.
Dennis Ross, president of WJZP-FM, said his inspiration to start a minority-owned radio station came from Talbot.
Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, said “as a person of color, I would not be able to lead such an immigrant rights organization in Maine without such a trailblazer.”
Dawud Ummah, president of Portland’s Center for African Heritage, spoke about the bond he felt when he was getting to know Talbot and learned he had served in the military, and called Talbot a “true American hero.”
Board members spoke about the honor they felt in being able to participate in the vote to rename the school, and about the value in elevating an African American for the honor.
“This is a valuable step to recognize a civil rights activist in our public school system,” board member Abusana Bondo said. “We all know that we still have a long way to go for bridging the gap of teaching diversity in staff in our district and state. We strongly believe in a diversity of thinking, backgrounds and expertise, we will improve our student learning process.
“Our favorite African writer Chimamanda Ngozi said … ‘Stories can break the dignity of a people. But also stories can repair that broken dignity,’” Bondo said. “We are moving to that direction now in naming one of our schools to reflect the legacy of Mr. Talbot.”
Board chairman Roberto Rodriguez described Talbot as a role model as a public servant and as an example of the importance of minority students seeing themselves in their educators, and of efforts to diversify the district’s teaching staff.
“To see the value that the African Americans have had in this state, there’s no better way to help feel like you belong here,” Rodriguez said. “What better message can we send as a district of how much we value diversity than by recognizing one of the greatest leaders in this state?”
Student representative Stephanie Brown of Portland High School said school students know how special it is to be a part of this “historic step.”
The process began last year when the City Council requested that the School Board consider naming a school for Talbot. Board policy allows school facilities to be named in honor of people who have “made a significant social contribution at the local, state, national or global level,” which Superintendent Xavier Botana said aptly describes Talbot.
The board established review parameters and criteria, and only considered schools named for a location so as not to change other commemorative or historic names: East End Community School, Ocean Avenue Elementary School, Presumpscot Elementary School and Riverton Elementary School.
Early in the process, it became clear that Riverton was the right choice. The school had just received a grant to become a community school and would be in the process of changing its identity and signage to reflect this. Further, Talbot had a strong connection to the school because his grandson is a Riverton student.
The school has served as a center of the Riverton community for almost 100 years, Botana said, and at a meeting at the school about the name change the previous week, residents supported the change – but also urged including the word “community” in the name to reflect that connection.
In 1963, Talbot was part of a small delegation from Maine that attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
The power of the dream was still on Talbot’s mind Feb. 4, when he emphasized the importance of encouraging children to dream:
“They’ve got to dream so they can be here one day also,” he said. “Like all of you, you just try to do what you could possibly do. And you go from day to day, day to day and you dream. Don’t stop dreaming … and one day all of you and the students will one day be in the position that I am now.”