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Lee Blake: How do you make sure that we have a free society? How do you do that? How active can you be? How much are willing to stand for to be firm to make sure we’re always pushing progressively our society forward?
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud”. Our guest today is Lee Blake. She is the President of the New Bedford Historical Society. Welcome to our program.
Lee Blake: Thank you.
Anita Walker: You know I love New Bedford. You’ve heard me say this many, many times before.
Lee Blake: That’s right.
Anita Walker: And I think the reason is because it feels like I’ve stepped into a memory in time. It’s rich, authentic history, but also everything from Moby Dick to the whalers– there’s just such a big story around New Bedford. Tell our listeners, who may be not as familiar with the history.
Lee Blake: Well, the New Bedford Historical Society focuses on that whole time period between 1800 and about 1885. So we focus on that whole period when whaling was active, but also the abolitionist movement and the antislavery movement was very active in New Bedford, and it’s one of the reasons that Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists come to New Bedford, because there’s a vibrant African American community. With whaling, there are people from all over the world coming in. There are Polynesians coming in, there are Asians coming, Cape Verdians coming in, all of whom create this really wonderful multicultural community where people have to get together and tolerate each other. So we focus on that.
Anita Walker: So one of the very earliest communities that really thinks about, “We’re all alike because we’re all different.”
Lee Blake: Right, right. And works to strive– there are lots of people– the ruling Quakers were the individuals who were really involved in whaling, but the Quakers also believed religiously that slavery was wrong. So the Quakers really help pull that together with the African American community to organize against slavery. So New Bedford has this really interesting reputation. Southerners thought we were just a horrible place because we did not support their man-stealing, which is what we called it. So they would send individuals up to recapture and kidnap people, and the African American and the white community worked together with vigilance committees– is what they were called– and they would just call people out and say, “Why are you here? Why are you here in New Bedford? Because we will not allow you to take any of the people here back.” So which is why it creates this safe environment for Frederick Douglass to come to New Bedford.
Anita Walker: So we are looking at the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, and you are really zeroing in on his legacy in New Bedford.
Lee Blake: Well, New Bedford– Douglass’s first free home is New Bedford. So there.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Lee Blake: When he and his wife, Anna, who’s– they’re married like two days in New York City after they escape from Maryland, and they’re sent to New Bedford. New Bedford creates the whole kind of environment and has the environment for Douglass really to grow into being an abolitionist. He’s able to speak in the churches. In New Bedford we had integration– interracial schools at the time. He’s able to go to the churches and preach, and we had a lyceum. At that point in time a lyceum was a place where the intellectuals of the city would come together and they would invite speakers, and they would invite William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionists at the time, and Douglass was able to attend the lyceum and speak there. So even though he’d lived in New Bedford for three years, essentially from 1838 to 1841, he’s able to participate in what he calls the closest thing to heaven after being enslaved in Maryland. So really, New Bedford gives him kind of the “roots and wing” discussion we always have about what a city’s supposed to do. New Bedford offers that to him, and it is from New Bedford that he becomes an abolitionist and also moves on to other cities in Massachusetts. He lived in other cities in Massachusetts too. Lynn. Brockton.
Anita Walker: Lynn?
Lee Blake: We’ll have to do a Frederick Douglass trail.
Anita Walker: Oh, that is an excellent idea. But tell us what you are doing in New Bedford around his legacy.
Lee Blake: All right, so around his legacy, we have a lot of projects. So we have one project, for example, 200 Books for 200 Years. So we are giving out the copies of his first narrative to anybody with a library card. So the library has the 200 books, and periodically throughout the whole year of the bicentennial, we’ve have a 200 Book Day, and we did one for Black History Month; we’ll do another one in June; we’ll do another one in September. So in the end, we’re giving out almost a thousand books.
Anita Walker: That’s fantastic.
Lee Blake: And they’re mostly for people who are using the library. We have lectures and talks. One of the things that we’re doing is there is a writer who has written a book, persona poems, in the voice of Anna Douglass, and she’s going to come to New Bedford, and the name of her book is “Brief Evidence of Heaven”, and it talks about their original– their first few years as a married couple. Douglass is 20; Anna Douglass is 22. They’re married. They have their first three children in New Bedford. But she talks about her role as a woman and also her awakening as an abolitionist. So we have talks like that. We have an art show. We have essay contests. But throughout the whole year, we are spending time sprinkling the ideas of abolitionism, and what would an abolitionist be doing now. What would Douglass be doing now? And one of those things is that we are working with the lesbian and gay community to do a film series, so and everyone knows this is what Douglass would be doing now. He would be organizing for gay rights. That’s what he would be doing. And these ideas don’t die, they evolve, and as individuals who are involved in social justice and racial awareness, we have to keep those things moving forward.
Anita Walker: Racial awareness is absolutely as important a topic of conversation today as it ever has been.
Lee Blake: Right, right.
Anita Walker: How does Frederick Douglass kind of speak to us from the past and advance that conversation?
Lee Blake: Well, one of the things that we do is, working with Mass Humanities– so, Mass Humanities has a, “What would Douglass be doing now?” project that they do every year. “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” is a well-known speech that Douglass gave, and I think in 1854. We do that every year. So just around the Fourth of July, when people are talk about independence and freedom, Douglass is asked to give a speech, and he says, “What does that matter to me? I’m still oppressed. I’m still dealing with this.” And he does– and talks about things like the incarceration rate. So in 1850, he’s talking about people being incarcerated. Well, we’re still talking about that.
Anita Walker: We’re still talking about it. <laughs>
Lee Blake: So there are lots of things that he talks about– health issues. We talk about those things. We talk about the incidence with AIDS is rising again in the African American male community. So those are things that we can connect to the kind of organizing he would have been involved in, but also the kind of thought process that, “How do you make sure that we have a free society? How do you do that? How active can you be? How much are you willing to stand for to be firm to make sure we’re always pushing progressively our society forward?”
Anita Walker: Speaking of history in New Bedford, you are working on a historical district.
Lee Blake: Yes, we are. So as you mentioned, some of the neighborhoods in New Bedford just– they’re so authentic. The houses are still there. The houses are in good shape. The houses may have 1820s, 1840s bones. We have organizations which have done a lot of historic preservation. So the house that Douglass lived in when he first came to New Bedford is still extant, it’s still there, and that’s the Nathan and Polly Johnson House, and that house actually houses seven different fugitive families that we know of, including the daughters of William Wells Brown, and William Wells Brown is the first African American novelist. His daughters lived in that house while he did the abolition lecture circuit. So what we’re working on is– that actually is four blocks of houses that are in really good shape, with names and plaques, people who were involved in the abolitionist movement. The city of New Bedford is submitting paperwork– that will now become a new historic district, and that will be the Abolition Row District, and we’re looking forward that, and the Historical Society was lucky in that, directly across the street from the Johnson House, is a lot, an empty lot, that we were able to buy. That will become Abolition Row Park, and we actually got grants from one of the national mayoral foundations to start to develop a park that will tell the story of the abolition movement and will have a statue of Frederick Douglass in it.
Anita Walker: What do you think it means to be able to not only have the stories and all the research and history that you have done, but to actually physically mark the space and name it Abolitionist Row? What does that mean?
Lee Blake: It’s so exciting. I mean, it is exciting. We as an organization, and some of the other historical organizations, really have been talking about, “Well, how do we mark this? How do we create this place so people understand that there’s more to New Bedford than just whaling, but also that whaling helped in terms of social justice?” So we were able to do a lot of the research on the people that lived up and down Seventh Street, which is also where the Nathan and Polly Johnson House is. And it goes right to– I don’t know if you know the Rotch-Jones-Duff House, which is a beautiful whaling captain’s house which also housed two fugitive slaves. So you have a corridor of four blocks where the houses are in good shape, you have this empty lot, and people are pulling the history together to create a new conversation about what New Bedford did to end slavery, but also to abolish and push forward a more progressive social agenda.
Anita Walker: Will you say more about the connection between whaling and this social agenda around abolitionism?
Lee Blake: Well, part of it is that, in whaling, the people who really were the whaling captains and the owners of the whaling ships were Quakers, so their religious belief– and it’s very interesting, because we don’t always think of these things. Quakers were persecuted. When they first came to this country in the 17th century, they were persecuted, so they remember that, and one of the reasons that they were such stalwarts and so supportive of the antislavery movement is they knew what it was like to be persecuted, and they talk about that. When you read some of their early literature, they talk about that, about being persecuted, and once you overcome that kind of oppression, that doesn’t mean you just leave it aside. That means you don’t want it to happen to anybody else. So that’s really one of the hooks with whaling, is that the whaling captains and the whaling owners were Quakers, and they realized, first of all, you needed to have a really good and diverse workforce because people were coming from other countries. You couldn’t have them come from Cape Verde or from Polynesia– at the time that’s what it was called– or Hawaii– you couldn’t have them come here and then be persecuted because of their background or the color of their skin. So it was up to the Quakers to make sure that there was a tolerant atmosphere, and that was one way of making sure that their workforce was kept safe.
Anita Walker: So Frederick Douglass– an amazing story. I had no idea that he first lived in New Bedford.
Lee Blake: First free home.
Anita Walker: And by the way, listeners, we are seeing a point of pride and two thumbs up from Lee Blake at the New Bedford Historical Society, and the work that you’re doing, the research and the storytelling around Frederick Douglass, but also the larger narrative around the development of a community that understood diversity and what persecution looked like.
Lee Blake: It’s really– it’s very gratifying to be able to read and do the research and to be able to bring these stories forward so that people have a better understanding of what progressive social justice looked like then, and how we should be continuing to aim for that now.
Anita Walker: Lee Blake, President of the New Bedford Historical Society, another one of our creative minds, out loud.
Lee Blake: Thank you so much for inviting me.
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