“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”
– Frederick Douglass

Friday, June 23, 2023, will be remembered in New Bedford as a day of great celebration.

Hundreds of people had crowded into the new Abolition Row Park at the corner of Seventh and Spring streets to join in the dedication of a long overdue New Bedford homage to the history of the Underground Railroad in the city.

The politicians, of course, were there. As were state and city officials, historians and philanthropists and the region’s progressive and religious activists. They were all welcome and all had a role to play in the construction of what will indisputably be an important stop on all future tours of New Bedford for those wanting to understand both the city and 19th Century America.

All these different people were all there, but it was the New Bedford community of color who were proportionally there in the greatest numbers. And they were there in the greatest numbers because they knew, from first-hand experience, that it was their own hard-won efforts over decades and decades that finally brought this park and what it symbolizes to the city.

The sculpture of the young Frederick Douglass at Abolition Row Park. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

I’m talking about the long-term community of color of New Bedford. The Cape Verdeans and African Americans, the Native peoples and the West Indian immigrants. All of them.

In true Frederick Douglass fashion, they have demanded the inclusion of Black history in the history of New Bedford. They have said for decades now that New Bedford is not just the story of the Quakers who grew rich from whaling and brought their philosophy of tolerance to the American abolition movement.

Yes, that is one of the city’s greatest American legacies. But an equally great American legacy is the work of the Nathan and Polly Johnsons, the Anna Murrays and Frederick Douglasses, the Black leaders who through their own sweat and toil made New Bedford one of the principal destinations for their brothers and sisters escaping enslavement. An equal part of New Bedford’s founding story to the William Rotches and Joseph Grinnells and Herman Melvilles are the Paul Cuffes and Lewis Temples and William Carneys.

Lee Blake, the longtime president of the New Bedford Historical Society, has taken her community’s effort to raise consciousness about the city’s Black history on her proverbial back. She worked the corridors of government power, wrote the grants and understood the system. She and the other Historical Society leaders and their supporters have literally changed the New Bedford narrative.

“Now, when people hear New Bedford, they think people of color, they think Cape Verdeans, they think African Americans, they think Native people. Before, they just thought white whalers. We changed that!” Lee told the crowd gathered for the Friday dedication to applause and cheers of “Yeah!”

Blake, who was recently honored with a doctor of philosophy degree at UMass Dartmouth, is not in any sense a divisive figure. She framed on Friday for those celebrating why Black history is important to everyone in this country. This is especially important, she noted, at a time when there are forces in the country who “want to stop us telling our story.”

The stories that the New Bedford Historical Society have brought to the forefront of the city’s consciousness over the last quarter century are the stories of “the underappreciated and sometimes forgotten deeds of men and women of color,” Blake said.

New Bedford Historical Society President Lee Blake speaks at the Abolition Row Park dedication. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

“Their stories represent a touchstone for all of us,’ she said. “Black history is everybody’s history. Black history is the history of this country.”

I think it’s fair to say that Abolition Row Park, as it has been realized, is a superior venue, both as a place of reflection and education. The creators were wise enough to reach for the stars and go out and get the funding they needed.

At the entrance to the park is an inspired bronze sculpture of Frederick Douglass by Black artist Richard Blake. The image is of Douglass as a young man, already burdened with his mistreatment as an enslaved man in Maryland, but with that determined facial expression he later grew famous for in the 19th century portraits as the country’s leading African American abolitionist.

As you walk up Spring Street, Douglass seems to watch over the park, which is wonderfully landscaped and laid out. Beautiful plantings grace a surface, with a winding stone path leading to a gazebo where folks will be able to listen to an outdoor lecture or concert. A recessed area to the back of the park includes benches for rest, contemplation and information. Included are posters based on Lee Blake‘s and Timothy Dale Walker’s recent research on the maritime nature of many Underground Railroad escapes, brief biographies of some of the “freedom seekers” who found their way to New Bedford, an enlarged photo of the Rural Cemetery monument to Daniel Drayton, a white mariner who spent four years in prison after attempting to help 77 enslaved men and women escape to freedom aboard the schooner The Pearl.

The overflow crowd at the Abolition Row Park dedication. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

I was especially happy to see members of the Pocasset Tribe, the Native Americans who lived in the Greater New Bedford area, were included in the ceremonies Monday.

Little known, even on the South Coast, is the fact that Polly Johnson was from an Indigenous background.  “As her descendants, we continue to fight against oppression today. Today we hope to raise awareness of the presence and the resilience of the Native people in our community,” said Donna “Raindance” Page, a medicine woman with the tribe.

Cuffee, the Westport whaler who at the turn of the 18th century was one of the wealthiest Black men in the country, was also the son of an Indigenous woman.

The dedication was a New Bedford and history sensitive community event from start to finish. Philip Lima, brother of Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima, sang a moving rendition of the old Negro Spiritual “Steal Away.” Ethan Wood of the New Bedford Symphony played a German violin selection that the grandson of Frederick Douglass once played.

But it was left to Everett Hoagland, the city’s first (and in my opinion greatest) poet laureate, who best captured what the building of this great park is about.

Hoagland noted that several years after Frederick Douglass left New Bedford, while still a young man, he wrote “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” which the local poet called one of the greatest works of American literature, borne out of the unschooled genius and commitment of this great man born to enslavement

Poet Everett Hoagland at the Abolition Row Park dedication. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

As Douglass certainly would have, Hoagland noted that New Bedford — except for one brief superintendent — has never required that important testament to the history of the country as required reading in its school system. That superintendent, by the way, was Mary Louise Francis.

I remember that while reading Douglass’ “Narrative” at one of the city’s February Douglass marathons, for the first time glimpsing the horror of what slavery must have been like.

The passages were ones in which the very young Douglass witnessed an enslaved woman, his aunt, being whipped senseless, and in which Douglass described himself as having been “broken” in “body, soul and spirit” by a slavemaster who had worked him so hard and so long, and whipped him so regularly.

“There is a lot of mythology going around these days,” Hoagland told the crowd “But as Lee said, we have to teach our history, because as Baldwin said, the story of the Negro in America is America’s story.”

Hoagland finished his talk reading a short version of his great poem “Just Words: Frederick Douglass, 1838.” The poem, in part, recounts the role that New Bedford played in forming the great Frederick Douglass:

I am a poor pilgrim of sorrow…

Sometimes I don’t know where to roam…

…But I’ve heard of a city called Heaven

And I’ve started to make it my home.

Dead Fred Douglass alive

in the after-life of The Word:

…no more

driver’s lash for me, no more,

no more…

The gospel train’s a-comin’

I hear it rumblin’ through the land.

The poorest of poor can go,

with their fare in their hand;

the fare is faith and struggle.

So what we waitin’ for? Get on board,

Children, there’s room for many a-more.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress…”

Just words in hand, on borrowed free

merchant seaman’s papers loaned

by brother Freeblood. Given

meager money and abundant love,

in Baltimore your freedom financed by fiancée,

free born Anna Murray, who

risking all, would marry you

on a side-track at a way station in New York City.

And, so, wearing her heart’s handiwork,

disguised as a sailor in a blood red shirt,

tarp hat, black cravat, you boarded the train

in Maryland at Mercy Station, north

bound to Jubilee Terminal,

where you would be


…FREE, at last…

in standup Brother Nathan Johnson’s house,

at Mercy’s Wellspring

and Seventh Heaven Streets

in New Bedford’s Abolitionists’ Village

on that Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’, where

barely there you are

re-renamed. You’d been bound

as Bailey, journeyed as Johnson

and, by Nathan’s reading of a poem —

just words — at your overground, under-

ground train trip’s last stop, steeped

in words, baptized in purpose you came

roaring out of Nathan and Polly Johnson’s door,

reborn lean and leonine Frederick Douglas

of the life-long, reasoned, rhetorical roar:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand;

it never did and it never will.”

The still reverberating roar

tells those content to quietly wait

for justice,

Don’t leave life to chance or fate!

“Agitate! Agitate!! Agitate!!!”

Your roar reminds us

how we have been and should be


in the afterlife of his words:

I’ve heard of a city called Heaven

And I’ve started to make it my home.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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1 Comment

  1. My wife Jill and I proudly attended the dedication of Abolition Row Park and the statue of Frederick Douglass on June 23rd. The event rightly put New Bedford’s abolition fight against slavery and for freedom in the limelight next to its whaling history and I hope draws much tourist and scholarly traffic.
    On a personal note, when I moved to New Bedford in April 1983–just over 40 years to the day–I moved into the red-brick house at Seventh and School Streets and learned that Frederick Douglass had lived a few doors down on Seventh at the Nathan and Polly Johnson house and spoke at the Meeting House around the corner. Walking in his and others’ famous footsteps gives one an empowering perspective on a community that ignites imagination of the past.

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