Loretta “Lee” Blake has led a life devoted to social justice for women and people of color, and in the last few months she has seen notable fruits from her efforts. She was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from UMass Dartmouth at the school’s 2023 commencement, and as president of the New Bedford Historical Society she is overseeing the opening of Abolition Row Park, a public open-air museum chronicling and celebrating the contributions the city made during a vital era, particularly the roles of Frederick Douglass and the Underground Railroad in the 19th century.

Located at 20th and 22nd Seventh St., directly across from the Historical Society, Abolition Row Park will formally open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday at 1 p.m. The park is one feature of the Abolition Row District, a five-block stretch off Seventh Street, which was established by the signature of New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell in April of this year.

The Park will feature a water wall, a large gazebo, photos and documents, depictions of paths on the Underground Railroad, a children’s library, as well as a 7-foot statue of the iconic Douglass.


Two years in the making, the undertaking involved the cooperative efforts of many public and private entities. The project was funded by local, state, and federal grants along with private donations, all totaling just under $1 million.

Friday’s ribbon cutting will include comments from Mayor Mitchell, local elected representatives, and poet Everett Hoagland, with an unveiling of the Douglass memorial statue. The ceremony will also feature a performance by a group of violin players from the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, doing “Liebesfreud,” a composition that was often enjoyed by Douglass when it was performed by his grandson, Joseph.

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Born and raised in New Bedford, Blake’s impact on the advancement of civil rights has taken place mostly at and through institutions of education. As a student at New Bedford High School in the late 1960s, she successfully organized students to protest against dress code policies for female students. Also during her high school years, she began organizing efforts that demanded more classes and afterschool programs for African-American students, with the aim of giving Black students more positive images of themselves and greater connection to their identity.

While a student at UMass Dartmouth, Blake became a founding member of the New Bedford Women’s Center in 1973, an organization that shared information on free women’s health care services and birth control throughout the region. Soon after her graduation from UMass, her first job was teaching African American studies at New Bedford High School.

Five years later, Blake would move to New York City — starting a 25-year stretch where she worked to integrate the city’s construction unions, before being appointed as the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Educational Services in the administration of the city’s first Black mayor, David N. Dinkins. This position enabled Blake to coordinate educational initiatives and act as a liaison to the city’s Board of Education, City University, and the New York State Board of Higher Education.

Upon returning to New Bedford in 2001, largely to care for her parents, Blake took on the role of executive director of economic development and education at UMass Dartmouth, a post she held for 15 years. The position enabled her to network local K-12 teachers with college professors from throughout the country with the aim of infusing creative ideas to improve educational practices.

For the last 10 years, Blake has been the president of the New Bedford Historical Society, heading efforts to preserve and support the city’s multicultural and multiracial history, incorporating African Americans, Native Americans, and Cape Verdean communities. During her tenure with the Historical Society, Blake has helped the organization receive six grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities relating to the city’s history as a maritime location during the time of Douglass and the Underground Railroad. In partnership with UMass, the Historical Society has hosted several summer development workshops for approximately 400 teachers from around the country to learn about the city’s rich abolitionist history.

In an interview with the New Bedford Light, Blake talked about the national and local progress she has seen throughout her storied life, the importance of education, and what Abolition Row Park will contribute to the city.

New Bedford Light: Growing up, how were you introduced to the circumstances of people of color in America and New Bedford? What were the early experiences that shaped and inspired you?

Lee Blake: I was a teenager during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, so between the Civil Rights movement and my activities in the anti-war movement against our involvement in Vietnam. Also, I was involved in setting up the New Bedford Women’s Center. It was really three different areas of social justice that I was involved in or watching that really impacted my life at the time. When I was in high school, I was listening to people like John Kerry talking about his experiences, Gloria Steinem, and Shirley Chisholm, and here in New Bedford as a young woman we really didn’t have any options. It was go to school, get a degree, become a teacher or get married. So many of us at that time rebelled against the whole trajectory that really didn’t take us into consideration as equal partners.

NBL: Why did you think that education was an important avenue for dealing with the circumstances of people of color and the underserved?

LB: Education is really important in a sense that a lot of the history of people of color and of women has been under researched, marginalized. So education is one of the few places where you really can sit down, in my case with students, and talk about what the realities were, what really happened. Not the mythology and the cleaned-up version of American history that still pushes people of color aside and does not address their contributions to society.

NBL: What progress have you seen for people of color since the 1960s, both nationally and locally, and what would you attribute that progress to?

LB: I think that there has been a lot of progress. But just as we’re experiencing now, the progress moves forward and then there’s this whole wave of people who try to drag us back. So, of course, we have more elected officials, we have state senators, we have representatives. We were finally able to elect President Obama, which was very significant in this country. But now we have this whole wave of people trying to destroy the Voting Rights Act so that that doesn’t happen again. We have people who are deciding that women have actually gained too much power and now it’s time to take that away from them. So we have the Roe vs. Wade fiasco where women aren’t even in control of their bodies anymore. In the last couple of days, the Southern Baptists decided to end the relationship with the churches that have women ministers. You see people trying to take back what they had a very long time ago.

Lee Blake. Credit: Jonathan Leblanc-Unger / The New Bedford Light

NBL: What contributions will Abolition Row Park make to the city and what does it say about the efforts of the New Bedford Historical Society?

LB: Abolition Row Park is really part of a national movement, and that national movement is to identify spaces that are important to people of color and women. Abolition Row Park is right across the street from the Nathan and Polly Johnson House, one of the most important Underground Railroad stations in the city, as well as the Friends’ Meeting House and other properties that Nathan and Polly Johnson owned as entrepreneurs.

The other thing is that we’re creating a historical legacy of a movement in New Bedford that has essentially been ignored. People talk about it but honoring the abolitionists in New Bedford — they were black, they were white, they were Native Americans — they were very active. And New Bedford has a relationship in the 1830s and 1840s, up until the Civil War, as a place that was very active in terms of social justice, and very active in providing opportunities for people of color.

NBL: Will Abolition Row Park contribute to people’s awareness of the importance of New Bedford during that critical time in history?

LB: It’s an educational park, so what that means is, yes, we saved that footprint of land that is going to highlight the importance of the abolition movement with educational signage with a 7-foot statue of Frederick Douglass. Douglass lived right across the street and walked the streets of New Bedford for four or five years. He started his family here; he started his career here as an abolitionist. So, the park will highlight, through art and design, the attributes of the Underground Railroad. For instance, the plaza of Abolition Row actually has different colored cement in ribbons to represent the roads of the Underground Railroad. We have a gazebo that will have lights in it, and there will also be lights that will focus on the northern stars. We have elements such as photographs of Black abolitionists who lived in New Bedford, who were active in that neighborhood, that will be displayed along with quotes from them and other abolitionists.

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NBL: Why is the history of people of color important to people who are not of color?

LB: The history of people of color is a history of a country. So New Bedford prides itself on being an immigrant community, so the history of immigrants is important. The city was also very involved in the textile industry. So New Bedford has all of these wonderful components that helped develop it as a city and we should honor all of those components. And it also is really about how the United States developed and was impacted by all of the different groups that came to New Bedford. Black history is not just Black history. Black history is the history of the people of this country.

NBL: Education primarily impacts young people, though not exclusively. Why is it important to reach young people?

LB: Education on anything is important to young people. First of all, it helps them have a more expansive view of the possibilities of their lives. If you don’t know how to use wood, why would you want to be a carpenter? So essentially, young people have access to some of the great social justice issues of our time. You want to know the history because you want to know how we got here. How did the country get here? So, you get to know the history.

For me right now, we’re dealing with all of these issues around the next election. But to sit down and listen to people talk about what happened with Richard Nixon and Watergate — that is a history we are in some ways experiencing once again. So, the history of the country becomes important because it has antecedents. It’s not just one historical event, but the history really feeds into the development of our historical narrative and how the history of our country is continued on.

You never know what is going to create a spark in a young person. A young person might want to learn more about or get more direction on, in terms of history or social justice, on the way they run their lives in support of our general community.

NBL: We’ve talked about the past and the present. What are your thoughts when it comes to the future for people of color in America as well as the New Bedford area?

LB: I think that the New Bedford Historical Society has been working to make sure that young people have a good sense of what happened in the city from the perspective of people of color, and what I see now is that has really helped others develop new programs and new murals. Many of the murals in the city were developed initially by us, and now it’s almost “Mural City.” Every time you turn around there’s a new mural. It helps punctuate the wonderful history of the city.

Editor’s note: Lee Blake is a member of The New Bedford Light’s board of directors. The New Bedford Light newsroom is scrupulously independent. Only the editors decide what to cover and what to publish. Founders, funders, and board members have no influence over editorial content.

Sean McCarthy is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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