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Reading 3: New Life in New Bedford
New Bedford was a whaling port, and provided many opportunities for African Americans as seamen and as workers in the shipbuilding industry. The abolitionist leanings of many inhabitants made it friendly to African Americans, especially freedom seekers. Douglass found his arrival there in 1838 significant for a number of reasons. First, for safety's sake, he needed a new name. While enslaved, he was named Frederick Augustus Bailey. Douglass had changed his last name to Johnson when he went to New York City but in New Bedford, there were already a number of people with the same name. Douglass turned to Nathan Johnson, his host in New Bedford, for advice. Frederick's only condition was that he must not change his first name, so that he could "preserve a sense of my identity." Nathan suggested "Douglass" from a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem, "Lady of the Lake."
Secondly, Douglass took note of the differences between the North and the South in the treatment of African Americans. For example, he was impressed by the high standard of living, even for the free blacks and working men:
In the afternoon of the day when I reached New Bedford, I visited the wharves, to take a view of the shipping. Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth. Lying at the wharves, and riding in the stream, I saw many ships of the finest model, in the best order, and of the largest size . . . . Added to this, almost every body [sic] seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange . . . . But the most astonishing as well as the most interesting thing to me was the condition of the colored people, a great many of whom, like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men. I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland. I will venture to assert that my friend Mr. Nathan Johnson…lived in a neater house; dined at a better table; took, paid for, and read, more newspapers; better understood the moral, religious, and political character of the nation,--than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot county, Maryland. Yet Mr. Johnson was a working man. His hands were hardened by toil, and not his alone, but those also of Mrs. Johnson.1
Finally, Douglass found a paying job as a free man:
I found employment, the third day after my arrival, in stowing a sloop with a load of oil. It was new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it with a glad heart and a willing hand. I was now my own master. It was a happy moment, the rapture of which can be understood only by those who have been slaves. It was the first work, the reward of which was to be entirely my own. There was no Master Hugh standing ready, the moment I earned the money, to rob me of it. I worked that day with a pleasure I had never before experienced. I was at work for myself and newly-married wife. It was to me the starting-point of a new existence. 2
In New Bedford, Douglass participated in abolitionist meetings and became an anti-slavery lecturer. He traveled extensively, including abroad. Despite his positive experiences in the North, he made it clear that there was always the chance that freedom seekers could be recaptured. Douglass made the following point in a speech in London in 1846:
One word with regard to the fact, that there is no part of America in which a man who has escaped from slavery can be free. This is one of the darkest spots in the American character. I want the audience to remember that there are those who come to this country [Great Britain] who attempt to establish the conviction that slavery belongs entirely to the southern states of America and does not belong to the north. I am here, however, to say that slavery is an American institution-that it belongs to the entire community; that the whole land is one great hunting-ground for catching slaves and returning them to their masters. There is not a spot upon which a poor black fugitive may stand free-no valley so deep, no mountain so high, no plain so expanded, in all that ‘land of the free and home of the brave,' that I may enjoy the right to use my hands without being liable to be hunted by the bloodhounds.3
Questions for Reading 3
1) What was the importance of New Bedford to Douglass?
2) What surprised Douglass about the Johnsons's house? How did the Johnsons typify the life of other free African Americans in New Bedford?
3) What was different for Frederick Douglass about the hard physical labor he did in New Bedford from that in Maryland?
4) If you were a slave who had escaped and become free, would you want to keep any part of your name that had been used while you were enslaved? Why or why not?
5) How does Douglass's speech in London add to his portrayal of life in New Bedford? Do you agree with his statement that slavery was an "American institution" instead of a southern one? Why or why not?
Reading 3 is compiled from Frederick Douglass,"Chapter XI" in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845) and John Blassingame, et al, eds. The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One-Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).
1 Frederick Douglass, "Chapter XI:" in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).
3 Frederick Douglass, "Emancipation is an Individual, a National, and an International Responsibility: An Address Delivered in London, England, on May 18, 1846," London Patriot, May 26, 1846. John Blassingame, et al, eds. The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One-Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Vol 1. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 249.