PORTLAND, Maine — It all started with a heap of credit card debt, racked up on his 2017 wedding to wife, Dela.
Faced with a stack of bills, Dugan Murphy needed a way to make some extra cash. Being a comfortable public speaker and long-time local history fan, a tour guide side gig seemed a natural fit.
Murphy was soon spending his summers showing tourists around Portland, pointing out landmarks from the moving deck on the local Duck Boat.
It was fun but frustrating.
“There was no way I could say anything meaningful about the First Parish Church before I got to Monument Square — unless we hit a red light,” he said.
He wanted to go deeper.
That’s why Murphy launched his own walking tour company this spring. Focusing on under-told stories from the city’s past, it’s called Portland By the Foot. Murphy’s new, one-man company specializes in Portland’s Black history, women’s history and other working-class tales of yesteryear.
“I get to explore topics I’d normally have to brush over,” Murphy said. “I spent months over the winter reading, taking notes and planning the routes.”
His tours typically run a couple hours and span a little more than two miles. Murphy now gets to tell visitors about some of the city’s fascinating, long-gone characters without worrying about traffic lights.
“The best part is that I can linger at any landmark as long as I want,” Murphy said.
Last week, on a Black history tour, he regaled tourists from New York and Boston — as well as a couple of locals — with details of 19th century African-American cabbie Reuben Ruby’s life.
Ruby helped form the Maine Anti-Slavery Society in 1834 and the Portland Union Anti-Slavery Society in 1841. He also worked for abolition by organizing Black voters on a national level.
“He was the Stacey Abrams of his day,” Murphy said.
Ruby’s horse-drawn cab also helped him become one of the foremost conductors on the Underground Railroad in Portland, helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada or Europe.
On Commercial Street, Murphy enlightened his tour goers about John Brown Russwurm, the third African-American to graduate from an American college.
Russwurm earned his degree from Bowdoin in 1826, co-founded the country’s first Black-owned newspaper the next year and eventually became governor of an African colony for those fleeing North American slavery.
Murphy relates his topics with obvious relish and generous gusto. Sporting bright red sneakers, and sprinkling his serious topics with plenty of humor, he aims to make history interesting and engaging.
Upon entering the First Parish Church and handing folks a cannonball from the British bombardment in 1775, Murphy points out it’s not the only building to bear its name.
“This is actually the third First Parish Church,” he said, to a small round of laughter. “It’s also where slavery began to end in Maine.”
Going straight from the laugh, Murphy then told his audience about Romeo, a man enslaved to the pastor at the church, who bought his own freedom with money made serving in the Continental Army — fighting for his master’s “freedom.”
Murphy then paused, letting the irony sink in for a moment.
“I always learn something on Dugan’s tours,” said local Kaya Williams, who is Black. “When I went to school, we didn’t learn this history — there’s so much that never got touched on. People never talk about this.”
Murphy said he’s painfully aware of the fact that he’s a white man giving tours about Black history and women’s history.
“The way I see it, this is Maine history. This needs to be told. It’s important,” he said. “And I’m doing this out of a place of admiration and respect. I am supremely amazed at the history of Black Portlanders.”
The same goes for women, too, Murphy said.
When first researching his subjects, Murphy said he wasn’t sure there’d be enough Black or women’s history to last a whole tour.
He was wrong. It turns out there’s plenty, it’s just not well known. The real problem is winnowing it down to just two hours. His first attempts ran well over three.
“The real challenge is how to keep myself from being a history fire hose and knocking people down,” Murphy said.
With a slick website designed by his wife, business is starting to pick up as the weather gets warmer. Murphy said he is already leading several tours a week and plans to run into November.
As for the credit card debt, it’s not a problem anymore.
“I’m happy to say we paid it off,” he said.