Here are some New Bedford homes that were part of the Underground Railroad
NEW BEDFORD — When African-American slaves in the The South escaped to the North before the civil war, they had to find refuge in safe houses, for while they were up north and away from their owners, most could not breathe a sigh of relief until they reached Canada where the slavery had been abolished decades earlier.
To make this incredibly risky journey, they followed the routes of Underground Railroad – which was not at all a real railway – but rather a network of refuges, called “stations”, where runaway slaves would take refuge until they can get to Canada.
Even when they got to the north, the Acts of fugitive slaves were a pair of federal statutes looking over their shoulders. Both laws authorized the capture and return of runaway slaves to the United States. Passed by Congress in 1793, the first Fugitive Slave Act allowed local governments to seize and return escapees to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who helped them flee. The second act imposed even harsher penalties for interfering in their capture.
The Underground Railroad boomed between 1830 and 1861. Shelters along the route were often ordinary houses, and the landlords who housed runaway slaves were called “drivers”. Slavery had officially ended in Massachusetts in 1783.
In the City of New Bedford’s proposal to create Abolition Row on Seventh Street, it has been noted that “between 1790 and the Civil War, New Bedford became known not only as the whaling capital of the world, but also as one of the greatest asylums for runaway former slaves. The city was a tolerant community where African Americans lived and worked among wealthy white and shore whale traders, as well as skilled craftsmen, merchants, service workers, laborers, and sailors of all colors.
As Black History Month is coming to an endHere are some of the New Bedford “stations” that helped slaves on their way to ultimate freedom in Canada:
Nathan and Polly Johnson House – 21 7th Street
Perhaps New Bedford’s best-known “train station” was the Nathan and Polly Johnson’s house at 21 Seventh St. They helped runaway slaves and helped one of the most famous runaway slaves, abolitionist and public speaker Frederick Douglass. A business partner with her husband in confectionery and restaurant businesses, Polly worked hard to ensure freedom seekers could find “sweet freedom” in New Bedford.
The National Park Service has designated the Nathan and Polly Johnson House as a site of the Network’s Underground Railroad to Freedom and has released a pamphlet titled “Behind the Mansions” that prominently features Seventh Street. The house was purchased by the New Bedford Historical Society, with assistance from the Waterfront Historic Area League (Whale) and the Massachusetts Historical Commission in December 1998.
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Jane Adora Major Jackson and Rev. William Jackson House – 198 Smith Street
When William was called to pastor the Second Baptist Church of New Bedford from 1851 to 1852, Jane remained in their Philadelphia home to care for their nine children. Tragically between the 1840s and the mid-1850s, the family mourned the deaths of six of their nine children.
She reunited with William in New Bedford and met many social activists and abolitionists. They lived on Smith Street, where they housed — no one knows exactly how many — fugitives.
In the fight against slavery, Jane became one of the founders of a community sewing circle around 1860 in New Bedford where she and other relatives of the New Bedford Colored Regiments joined in raising funds, by helping, by sewing and by helping the families of the soldiers. It was then named the Jane Jackson Sewing Circle.
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William and Amelia Piper — 58 Bedford Street
Amelia Piper and her husband William may not have been free when they arrived in New Bedford in 1830 with their four children after escaping from Alexandria, Virginia. Amelia was mentioned in several articles in the Liberator, a newspaper that reviewed the activities of New Bedford abolitionists at anti-slavery rallies in the city and in Boston.
She was a director of the New Bedford Female Union Society and organized one of the first anti-slavery fairs in New Bedford. The fair was held to raise funds to benefit The Liberator and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Annual fairs were usually held in Boston and New Bedford.
One of the best-known fugitives aided by Amelia and William was John Jacobs, brother of writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs.
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Elisha Thornton Jr. House – 20 Seventh Street
Elisha Thornton Jr. was a pharmacist and an investor in several whaling ships. He gave refuge to Daniel Fisher, a 20-year-old slave who had been taken from his family and sold. He escaped from South Carolina and headed north where he changed his name to William Winters. He lived with Thornton for a year in 1855 and left town after the Civil War. The house was demolished after falling into disrepair.
George Howland House — 245 Walnut Street
George Howland made his fortune by owning a number of businesses and properties. He owned nine whaling ships, a count house, a wharf, a candle factory, stores, houses and plots of land. He was one of the wealthiest men in town at the time of his death in 1852.
The role that George Howland Sr. played in the lives of some New Bedford colored men was mentioned in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. Howland took in a 12-year-old black boy named John Briggs from Tiverton. Howland himself had two sons of Brigg’s age who helped Briggs in his upbringing. He then worked for Howland for many years. Brigg remained in New Bedford and lived on Allen Street.
Joseph Ricketson Jr. — 179 Union Street
Famous fugitive Henry “Box” Brown climbed into a wooden crate in Virginia in 1849 and shipped off to Philadelphia. From there he traveled to New York and then New Bedford to the home of Joseph Ricketson Jr. Brown’s escape was celebrated openly and a day or two after arriving in the city he attended a party in his honor at the home. by William J. .Rotch. Brown’s escape brought him notoriety and he became a well-known speaker on the anti-slavery lecture circuit.
Ricketson’s house was demolished in 1955.
There are a number of other houses, historical figures and events in New Bedford that were significant to the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement – only a few are highlighted here.
The Standard-Times is grateful to Lee Blake of the New Bedford Historical Society for providing the material and historical data for this story.
Standard-Times digital producer Linda Roy can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @LindaRoy_TBS. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to the Standard-Times.