NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — New Bedford, while most often recognized for its role in the fishing industry, was also a beacon of hope for enslaved peoples seeking freedom.

Many families, like historian and teacher Lee Blake, can trace their roots in the Whaling City back to Black people who found freedom in New Bedford — and helped others achieve the same.

Bank legers, as well as transcribed speeches and oral traditions, show many fugitives came and went on ships through New Bedford to Canada. Blake’s fourth great-grandparents, Amelia Piper and husband William, were conductors in the Underground Railroad, holding bake sales and fundraisers to pay for enslaved peoples’ freedom.

Blake, who is the president of the New Bedford Historical Society, said her own family history inspired her to learn and teach about the city’s importance in the Underground Railroad. 

“We know that there are at least 700 fugitives who came to live in New Bedford,” Blake said.

New Bedford became a safe haven for enslaved people seeking freedom because Massachusetts was a free state and had a large Quaker population, leading to acceptance. Many of the whaling captains were Quakers and enslaved peoples would conspicuously sneak onto their boats.

“They really believed that everybody had a soul,” Blake said. “Everybody was equal in the eyes of God.”

The captains would cover their tracks by downplaying finding fugitives in newspaper articles.

“They’d say, ‘Oh you know we were out to sea, and we looked around on our boat and we found a fugitive and the wind wasn’t right. We couldn’t turn around so I just want you to know we dropped off somebody named Michael in New Bedford,'” Blake said.

Whaling was tough work and new workers were always needed to man ships. Blake said most people didn’t do it for more than two years. Free Black individuals would then transition to other seafaring jobs in New Bedford, including sewing sails.

Others, like Nathan Johnson, owned bath houses. Johnson, a free Black man, was married to a woman named Polly. Polly came from a Black and Wampanoag family who had been enslaved in Tiverton.

Blake’s ancestors are pictured on the wall of Johnson’s 7th Street home — preserved as the Nathan and Polly Johnson House.

The Johnsons were respected in the community and known for the baths Nathan’s business provided by the docks or Polly’s work as an event planner. Over time, they saved up money and paid off loans they took out from white people to own their house.

The home then became a safe haven for enslaved people traveling to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Perhaps their most notable guest was Frederick Douglass, who called it his first home as a freed man.

While white and Black people were to be treated equally in Massachusetts by law, there were still cases of discrimination.

“Some instances where Frederick Douglass talks about how going to the churches here, sometimes he was asked to sit in the back,” Blake said. “There is a whole issue with transportation and women of color getting on the trolleys or getting on the horse-drawn carriages and being asked to sit in the back.”

African Americans won lawsuits against white residents for cases like this. More so, some of the Black residents were children of slave owners themselves.

“There was no discrimination or segregation in our public schools so there are interesting stories of individuals, plantation owners, who had fathered Black children, who sent their children here to go to school,” Blake said.

7th Street is also called Abolition Row. The Abolition Row Park is set to open in the summer, attracting people across the region to observe and celebrate this piece of New Bedford history.