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What we can learn from the life and legacy of Prince McLellan, an enslaved Mainer

Prince McLellan, who got his last name from his former slave owner, escaped the farm in Gorham to fight in the Revolutionary War.

GORHAM, Maine — Vana Carmona was walking by her grandmother's gravesite in Gorham's east cemetery nine years ago when she noticed another tombstone bearing the same last name.

"I just didn't know who he was. It took me a very short time to figure it out," Carmona said.

Searching through existing records, she was able to discover he was an enslaved man who lived through the Revolutionary War. She also learned his name was Prince McLellan. 

"I was just really shocked to learn my family had been involved in this," Carmona said. 

She comes from the family of McLellans, who were the slaveowners of Prince.

"I guess I had wanted to believe that narrative that we were all so great and so wonderful, so it was a real shock. I feel like I had been lied to. I felt like I had not been told or allowed to tell the truth. I can't understand how you can do that to people," Carmona said.

Carmona has spent the past few years working on the The Prince Project, which aims to chronical the life of enslaved or formerly enslaved Black New Englanders.

There isn't much recorded about Prince's long life. Records show he didn't receive a pension until he was in his 70s and was married twice. There's also no record of children, but Carmona is hopeful he did.

"I would love to find a record of his children. I have tried to find some way to trace back and find out who his children were," she said. 

The biggest information out of Prince's life is that he escaped enslavement to fight in the Revolutionary War.

"He was not supposed to go off and fight the revolution, but he took off anyway," Carmona said.

Off into a war where the outcome was unpredictable, Carmona said Prince returned from the war to Boston, where he sought out his own plot of land back in Gorham.

"That was one of the turning points in being able to move forward with their freedom, and that was something they could do," Carmona said.

But while the history on Prince is limited, the lack of information highlights a racial discrepancy in record keeping for people in America.

Dustin Ward is the founder of It Is Time... LLC, and he also serves on the board for the Atlantic Black Box project. Ward said understanding the history of slavery in New England can help Black and brown people living in vastly white states feel a sense of roots.

"While that history is hard, it's still so vastly important to make that connection," Ward said. "How seamlessly we tend to create a division between, 'The South did this, and the North was good.' ... That's all false, that somehow we have overcome and that's not the case as we know the issues of race and racism are still prevalent," Ward said.

Ward said if a more expansive record was kept on Prince and other Black people living in the early years of the nation, more lessons would be available to learn from.

"That narrative of who they were and how they were is vastly important, but it gets lost so much, and we're piecing this together. It's sad because there is so much they can offer us today," Ward said.

More information on Prince and other Black Mainers from the early years of the U.S. can be found here through the Atlantic Black Box project.

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