One Square Mile: New Bedford’s Abolition Row

Feb 6, 2018

As part of RIPR’s One Square Mile: New Bedford series, RIPR’s Chuck Hinman talks with Lee Blake, the president of the New Bedford Historical Society, about New Bedford’s prominent role in the abolitionist movement in the mid-18th century.  

New Bedford in the mid-19th century was a special place. The whaling industry supplied the superior fuel, sperm whale oil, to a world-wide market, and New Bedford was known as “the city that lit the world”. With around 15-thousand residents, the city harbored possibly the greatest concentration of wealth in America. And New Bedford had another distinction: its racial tolerance made it a safe haven for slaves escaping north to freedom via the Underground Railroad. This was not looked upon favorably down south, in the slave states, according to Lee Blake, the president of the New Bedford Historical Society.

"Southern newspapers would have these great articles about how treacherous and crazy the people of New Bedford were," said Blake recently, during an interview in the parlor of the Nathan and Polly Johnson house in New Bedford. The Johnson house, a National Historic landmark, is owned by the historical society, preserving its legacy as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Nathan and Polly Johnson were free blacks in New Bedford and, in 1838, gave refuge in their home to the escaped slave who became famed abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass.  

"It’s a wonderful time to be at the Johnson house, because it is 2018, and it is actually the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass," said Blake. She credited New Bedford's environment at the time, the African-American population, the support from the Quakers and other religious denominations, with encouraging the young Douglass's discovery of his calling as an inspiring abolitionist.

Frederick Douglas became a national leader of the abolitionist movement, known for his powerful speaking and writing in support of human rights and dignity. To preserve his New Bedford legacy, Lee Blake and the Historical Society have worked to create a memorial park on vacant land that is just across the street from the Nathan and Polly Johnson house.

The site of Abolition Row Park
Credit Chuck Hinman / RIPR

"We are building a park based on really supporting the idea that all the people that live in New Bedford; the African-Americans, the Cape Verdeans, the Native-Americans, the European-Americans, the Portuguese-Americans, we all built this city," said Blake. "We all did that."

Ground was broken on what's called Abolition Row Park last spring. Blake said more work would be done this spring. Blake described her vision for the park, as an oasis with flowering plants, cherry trees, a gazebo, educational kiosks and, of course, a statue of Frederick Douglas. She would also like to see a plaza, where people can speak, carrying on the Douglass tradition of oratory.