New Bedford Residents Seek Recognition For Frederick Douglass In His Hometown

Download Audio
Dawn Blake Souza, a retired educator in New Bedford, is reading "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass" for the fourth time. (Simón Rios/WBUR)
Dawn Blake Souza, a retired educator in New Bedford, is reading "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass" for the fourth time. (Simón Rios/WBUR)

New Bedford was Frederick Douglass' first home in Massachusetts -- the place where the escaped slave became an abolitionist. But activists in New Bedford say the city is still a long way from properly recognizing the iconic American.

Efforts are underway to give Douglass his due place in New Bedford history.

Earlier this week, a few dozen participants read from Douglass' iconic speech, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," on the Boston Common in honor of Independence Day.

"You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them and pour out your money to them like water."

In the speech, Douglass points to the hypocrisy of American liberalism.

"But the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill."

Born into slavery as Frederick Bailey, he escaped at the age of 20. He soon became one of the most prominent voices against the "peculiar institution" of slavery. But it was during his time in New Bedford — his first home as an escaped slave — where Frederick Bailey became the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

“The only reason why I learned growing up about Frederick Douglass was because I lived in a community of color, and so we had mentors, and my parents, who made sure I got that information,” said Dawn Blake Souza.

Souza is a retired educator in New Bedford who is reading Douglass’ autobiography for the fourth time. Born and raised in the city, she says she never learned about Douglass in school.

“I had read about Harriet Beecher Stowe. I learned that he was a guest in her home. Obviously I had read about Abraham Lincoln, he was an invited guest who met with Abraham Lincoln on multiple occasions. He was an associate of John Brown," she said. "These were all people that were part of the history I had learned, and yet he was not part of that history — and he was.”

“The only reason why I learned growing up about Frederick Douglass was because I lived in a community of color."

Dawn Blake Souza

When Douglass arrived in 1838, New Bedford was considered per capita the richest city in America. Abundant work on the city docks — and a strong abolitionist community — made the city ideal for Douglass. It was there that he came upon abolitionist writings, and eventually those leading the movement.

“The story was not being told. And we felt more than that, we had to tell our own story,” said Carl Cruz, a founder of the New Bedford Historical Society.

“We didn’t feel that others like the Whaling Museum or others should tell our story, when we are the individuals. And we know the story and we felt that it was important," he said. "So that’s how our organization basically came together in 1996.”

The society is based in the historic house of Nathan and Polly Johnson, the free black couple that took in the 20-year-old Douglass. The city is rich with history and abounds with people who tell it. But the only street named for him is Frederick Douglass Way — so small it doesn’t appear on Google maps. Nor is there a statue of Douglass. And of the 25 schools in the city — with names like Rodman, Parker, Pacheco, Winslow, Gomes and Swift — not one bears the name Frederick Douglass.

“We're actually glad they didn't name anything after Frederick Douglass, because we get to do that,” said Lee Blake, president of the historical society.

Blake says the city has made a lot of headway in recognizing Douglass. She points to a plaque at City Hall and another at the library, as well as a mural downtown. Most important she says, is a change made recently in the schools: Douglass' narrative is now required reading for eighth graders.

But she says the work to give the man his due goes beyond New Bedford. The society gets grants to bring in teachers from around the country to learn about Frederick Douglass.

“So we've been raising the whole visibility of Douglass and New Bedford across the country, because sometimes it is recognition across the country that makes people in your hometown figure out, well 'Wow, he must really be important,' because that's what had to happen here.”

And it's still happening. Blake says her group is in talks with the city to build a park in a vacant lot across the street from Douglass’ first home in New Bedford. They hope to rename the street something to the effect of Abolitionists' Row — and eventually, erect a life-size statue of Douglass.

Headshot of Simón Rios

Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



More from WBUR

Listen Live