Fifth Day, Thursday March 24th
When I arrive in the old whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, it’s overcast and very chilly. I had so enjoyed the respite from the cold in New York City’s balmy weather I was already a little spoiled. But I’m wearing lots of wool and my shearling boots, so I think I’m prepared. I start with the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park visitor center, run by the National Park Service. Several of the town’s buildings of historical interest are also preserved by the NPS, including one of particular interest for my journey today. The visitor center is housed in the Old Third District Courthouse constructed in 1835, a handsome Greek Revival building.
I’m assisted by the kind and knowledgeable Diane Altman Berube, and when I describe the purpose of my trip, she immediately supplies me with information, advice, a map, some pamphlets about Frederick Douglass, the town’s Underground Railroad and abolitionist history (a strong one!), and another about the 54th Regiment of the Union Army and an accompanying collection of cards, like baseball cards, with images and stories of men involved. The 54th Regiment plays an important role in Douglass’ life in many ways, more on that shortly.
After discussing the history of New Bedford, especially history pertaining to my trip, Diane directs me to a nearby coffeeshop and cafe, where I go to study the materials she gave me, do some additional research following what we’ve discussed, and arrange my tour for the day. Tia Maria’s is a sweet little Portuguese establishment, and serves me a beautiful cafe mocha topped with a cookie. What a nice way to warm up!
I’m here in New Bedford because the newly married Douglasses wanted a safer haven than New York City, which as we’ve seen was not, at that time, exactly a secure or safe place for escaped slaves or black people in general. New Bedford was an abolitionist stronghold and besides, being a seafaring town, Douglass expected it to be easy for his to get a good job in his trade as a ship’s caulker. The large population of free black people of that town, and their allies the Quakers, Unitarians, and others who believed strongly in universal human rights and dignity, were united and fierce in the defense of their freedom. Would-be fugitive slave catchers were loath to attempt captures there, since they were promptly driven out of town upon discovery, often accompanied by a good beating.
I decide to tour my New Bedford sites in order of location rather than chronology for two main reasons: I don’t have the luxury of extra time so I need to travel efficiently without much zigzagging around, and it’s really, really cold, to which this California gal is not acclimated, so I don’t want to stay outside for long wandering stretches.
I’m diverted at the outset by Seaman’s Bethel, since I pass by it at the crest of on Johnny-Cake Hill (charming name!) on my way from my car to my first destination. This old clapboard church to my left is featured in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, so of course I’m interested. I’ve long loved Melville, and I read his short stories, especially Billy Budd, over and over again as a young girl. While connections other than New Bedford itself, where Melville signed up to work on the whaler Acushnet and the fact that each wrote a story about a slave revolt on a ship never occurred to me, some writers have found many links between the lives and ideas of Douglass and Melville, as explained and described in Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation. I’m intrigued by this book which I only just discovered through my research for this trip, I’ll certainly return to give it a good read.
I begin with the Fifty-Fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Plaza on William St. between S. Second St and Acushnet Ave. This is where men signed up to serve as soldiers in the 54th Regiment as the first black troops of the Union Army in March of 1863. Douglass was a fierce advocate for the right of black men to enlist, and thought it not only their responsibility to fight for their own freedom, he thought it an invaluable tool for attaining better social standing and an opportunity to learn invaluable skills that a life of slavery often robbed them of. Two of the men to enlist in the 54th were the Douglasses’ own two sons, Lewis and Charles. Lewis saw combat with the 54th and was wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner on July 18th of that year; Charles fell ill and couldn’t serve at the time, but he later became a sergeant in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. More on the 54th Regiment coming up in another post soon.
Here I pause in my account of today’s journey. As I mention in the tale of my day in Easton, I occasionally miss places or photo opportunities that I kick myself for afterword. This happens nowhere else on this trip more than here in New Bedford. In this case, I’m particularly hard pressed for time, and to be honest, a little distracted by the cold. Turns out I’ve way underestimated the time I’d need here. So I’m going to do something a little differently for this day’s account: when you see a paragraph that begins with an asterisk, it’s an account of a place that I discover in my fact-checking and editing for this day’s journey, but that I overlook or don’t photograph adequately. I’m doing this so that if you want to use this account as a guide for your own Douglass trip here, you won’t miss anything important.
*Where I should go next, but miss though I’ve marked it on my map (as my friend Alex likes to say, ‘derp!’), is a little further west on William St just past Purchase St, where there’s a plaque commemorating Liberty Hall. The original hall burned down in October 1854, and burned so hotly it melted the bell; the plaque contains a piece of its twisted metal.
Douglass first heard William Lloyd Garrison speak at this hall in May or June 1839. Garrison preached that ‘prejudice against color was rebellion against God’, because all manner of sectarianism and prejudice went against God’s will that everyone be united into one body in Christ’s kingdom. Douglass was enthralled, read every issue of the Liberator enthusiastically, and attended every antislavery meeting held in this and nearby towns. He returned to Liberty Hall many times as a speaker himself over the next two decades in the 1840’s and 50’s.
From the 54th Regiment Plaza, I continue west on William very briefly, then head up Acushnet Ave to its north end. This street ends rather abruptly; though it had once continued north for quite a while, it was razed at some point, likely to make way for the freeway that runs there. It used to be Ray St, where Douglass and Anna moved to a house at number 111; their family was growing and they needed more space. The street there, and their third house in New Bedford, used to be closer to the wharves where Douglass worked for a time. Acushnet becomes Frederick Douglass way north of Elm St. Diane at the NPS told me that I would find a street up this way named Frederick Douglass Way. She wishes that either a grand or more main street was named after him, or that this street were more decorative and well landscaped. Since it’s fitting that this street be named for Douglass since he once lived here, I hope for my part it’s her second wish that will come true.
From Frederick Douglass Way, I head straight east on Elm all the way to the corner of Elm and County Streets. Diane at the NPS visitor center identified this as the old Methodist Church, which is no longer active at this site; it’s currently up for sale. The engraving in one of the pointed arches in the center front of the bell tower notes it was built in 1858, twenty years after Douglass would have begun attending. This may then be a new location, or it may have been rebuilt on this original site; Douglass specifically refers to its being on Elm St.
The Douglasses were seeking religious community and comfort, and hadn’t yet fully realized the degree to which the mainstream Methodist church, the religion of his youth, was a powerful supporter of slavery. Its ministers taught slaves that their salvation was to be attained through obedience to the worldly masters the Lord had placed over them, that their virtue was to be found in submission and hard work, and that their reward was to be in heaven rather than on earth. Unfortunately, many religious sects throughout history have used this tactic to exploit the poor and oppressed, teaching them that resignation to their plight is a virtue and a sure ticket to a better life in the hereafter, thereby avoiding the necessity, and responsibility, of making life on earth a happy and just one for all.
In addition, the segregation of black people into the back of the church, serving them communion only after the whites had been served, disenchanted Douglass and he promptly left, never to return. After all, as Douglass believed, the quality of a faith is revealed in the teachings of its ministers and the beliefs and behavior of its congregation, especially in matters of justice and kindness to one’s fellow human beings. He later joined a small faith community called the Zion Methodists, not only as a congregant, but as a licensed preacher. (There is a church building that housed the Frederick Douglass Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, no longer extant, at William and Eighth, but it’s uncertain whether it’s a continuation of Douglass’ congregation though it was named for him.)
Then I head south down Eighth St, turn left on Union, and stop at Seventh. There were two locations of interest in the life of Douglass here. One, on the southeast corner of Union and Seventh, once stood the house of the Peabodys, at 174 Union St, about where the gray house is now. This is where Douglass picked up his first odd job here when Mrs. Peabody paid him two silver dollars to put away a load of coal. This seemingly insignificant moment in a life felt very significant to the newly escaped Douglass, because it was the first money he ever earned that no one at that moment had the right or the inclination to take from him. It was one small job for a man, but one huge step in feeling like a free one.
Also on Union and Seventh, where this parking lot is now on the north side of the street, across from where Seventh begins, lived a man, or rather two men, named Joseph Ricketson. One of the the two men Douglass named in his narrative who picked up the newly married Douglasses when they arrived at Newport and took them to New Bedford was Joseph Ricketson (probably referring to Sr). The Ricketson house was a busy and particularly well documented stop on the Underground Railroad.
Then, Ricketson and the Douglasses would have taken the same route as I do now (assuming they stopped at his house first), heading south on Seventh Street to Nathan and Polly Johnson’s house at number 21.
This was the first home Douglass and Anna lived together, from the day they arrived here on September 17th 1838 until they moved into their own first home in 1839. It’s the only New Bedford home of the Douglasses still standing. Nathan and Polly were an inspiration to the Douglasses, a free, successful black couple who spent much of their time and money to help their people achieve the same.
Actually, to be perfectly accurate, it was the newly married Johnsons who arrived here, since the former Frederick Bailey (Douglass) had renamed himself Frederick Johnson, making himself and Anna two more of the already too many Johnsons in the town! Most of the escaped slaves here had taken the same last name, a friendly but over-done tribute. Johnson suggested the surname Douglass instead, after a hero in the Sir Walter Scott novel he was reading at the time, and Frederick accepted.
Then, as it’s I’m getting colder by the minute and hardly able to move my fingers (the wind chill has pushed the ‘feels like’ temperature down at this point to near freezing), I return to my car, and drive to 185 MacArthur Drive near Leonard’s Pier. This is the site of New Bedford’s first whale oil refinery, built in 1838. In his autobiographies, Douglass wrote of visiting the wharves to find work, described the granite warehouses there, told of loading casks of oil onto ships, and said he worked for a time in an oil refinery in the south of the city, for the same Joseph Ricketson just spoken of earlier. It would make sense that this is the same oil refinery, since it is indeed south of old New Bedford (where all the sites visited today were) and the year is early enough. If it isn’t Ricketson’s refinery, it could still be one of the ones Douglass delivered casks of oil to the ships from, and as you can see, it is made of granite.
Douglass was amazed at the level of social equality black people enjoyed there with its integrated schools and many other institutions, but there was still segregation in many of the public buildings and competition and prejudice among working people. It was for the same reason that caused Douglass’ bad experiences working on the docks, especially at Gardiner’s shipyard, when he was still enslaved in Fell’s Point, because free whites had to compete for wages with black workers who would accept lower wages and therefore drive them down. In the end, Douglass couldn’t find a good job as a caulker here, so he worked as a common laborer, on the docks, in an (this?) oil refinery, and at a brass foundry among other things, averaging about a dollar a day instead of the two dollars he could earn as a caulker. Though he was poor and worked long hours (which, as he said, was not at all conducive to mental improvement for the lack of time), he obtained a free subscription to Garrison’s The Liberator (which led him to Garrison’s talk at Liberty Hall), attended as many abolitionist meetings as he could, and continued to educate himself. As he became more informed, he became a more passionate believer in the cause of human rights.
I head a little north along the piers, and stop for a bit to look across the water in the general direction of Nantucket. The ferries don’t run there until later in April. On Aug 11, 1841, Douglass was invited to tell the attendees of his experiences as a slave at a large antislavery convention there at Atheneum Hall. Abolitionist William Coffin had overheard him talking with friends in a ‘little schoolhouse on Second St’ (which, though scouring all the sources I can find up to this point, I don’t find a location for) and was so impressed by his eloquent style of speaking, he was sure the convention would be too. It was likely one of the places the Zion Methodists met, for whom Douglass preached). Douglass first met William Lloyd Garrison there in person following this talk (as you remember, he had already heard him speak at Liberty Hall) and as Douglass’ telling of his story was so effective, he was solicited by another abolitionist leader John Collins to become a member and speaker of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Thus began Douglass’ lifetime career as a human rights activist.
The last site I visit today is where Frederick and Anna’s first home used to stand at 157 Elm St. I had actually passed by it earlier, on my way from Frederick Douglass Way to the old Elm St Methodist Church, as I had it on my list and in my notes but not on my map (derp! #2). If the street numbers haven’t changed, then it would have been on or near the site of the parking lot across from the yellow house marked 160. There’s not much left in the way of old buildings, so I go up a little ways toward the Methodist church, stopping at Eighth to photograph some of the houses on Elm, but most of them look too new to date to their time here.
Then as I head around the corner on Eighth, I spot a little street that runs one next to and parallel to Elm named Mechanics Lane, where most of the houses look of the right vintage, on a cobblestone street. I draw nearer to the houses and sure enough, their dates of original construction in the 1830’s are proudly displayed. So by looking at this street, we can get a good idea of what their neighborhoods looked like while they lived here. The Zion Methodist Church that the Douglasses used to attend may have stood at the corner of Eighth and Mechanics about where I’m standing as I spot this street, though again, that’s uncertain. The congregation met at various places around the town, since they had no permanent place of worship early on.
Thus ends my account of my day in New Bedford, a delightful and interesting day, even if a bit chilly. I need to skedaddle to meet my host in time at the end of my drive to my next destination. Stay tuned!
* By the way, if you have time to swing by, there’s a small Frederick Douglass monument on the front lawn of City Hall at 133 William St, near Mechanics Street, which you can see at the left of the photo. I don’t stop here since it’s not on my list of sites directly associated with Douglass’ life and as I mentioned, I’m running late and freezing cold so I don’t linger. But it’s a handsome building and a nice monument to visit.
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Sources and Inspiration:
Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999
Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies, with notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.
Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation. edited by Robert S. Levine and Samuel Otter. University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
‘Herman Melville‘, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Hood, James Walker. One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: Or, the Centennial of African Methodism. New York, 1895. (p 541)
Janiskee, Bob. ‘Loss of the Historic Baker-Robinson Whale Oil Refinery Rankles Officials at New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park‘. Apr 20th, 2010. National Parks Traveler
National Park Service, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park publications: The 54th Regiment cards and The Underground Railroad: New Bedford and A Whaling Town brochures.
‘New Bedford Black History Trail‘. The New Bedford Historical Society website
New Bedford Historical Society publications: Frederick Douglass: Freedom in New Bedford, The 54th Regiment, and Nathan and Mary “Polly” Johnson House brochures.
Walker Lithograph & Publishing Co., 1911. Massachusetts, New Bedford 1911. Atlas. (Plate 14)
Weidman, Budge. ‘Teaching With Documents: The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War – Preserving the Legacy of the United States Colored Troops‘, 1997. National Archives Teacher’s Resources.
Welker, Grant. ‘New Hotel Latest Sign of a Revived New Bedford‘. Jun 5, 2010. The Herald News.