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Orange County Register

McKenzie: When Family History is Black History

Feb. 12, 2014

Black history is as much a part of American history as Paul Revere's ride and the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Despite the fact that very little “Negro history” seemed to be of any interest to historians prior to the 20th century, my family and many others were making history nonetheless.

Our American journey began in 1795 when Marianna de Remila Luncq, just 15 years old, sailed into Portsmouth, N.H. She had arrived from Demerara, a Dutch colony known today as Guyana. A year later, she married and became Marianna Barnett and reportedly gave birth to 10 children. As her family thrived, some members moved north, and in 1821, my mother's great-grandfather, Charles Frederick Eastman, was born in my hometown of Portland, Maine.

Charles Eastman was a mariner, secondhand clothes dealer, hack driver and a barber. Today, he would be known as an entrepreneur. He raised four sons who became barbers and who collectively owned several barbershops in Portland. As they are today, black barbershops were important hubs of communication for the local black community.

My great-great grandfather understood the valuable role that his shops played in changing the appearance of the men who rode the underground railroad, a system established by opponents of slavery to help fugitive slaves escape to free states and Canada. The anti-slavery movement was alive and well in Maine, and he played an integral role in transporting and sheltering runaway slaves.

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