Black History

54th Massachusetts Infantry mural depicts recruitment of blacks for Union Army, Frederick Douglass.
54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry mural on William Street. Image courtesy: NPS

By the 1820s, the growing whaling industry attracted workers from all different backgrounds, including free and escaped African Americans, Pequot and Wampanoag natives, Cape Verdeans, Pacific Islanders, and Europeans. The job opportunities and diversity within the city fostered a civil rights movement and opportunities for people of all backgrounds.

In 1830, New Bedford's population totaled 7,592 residents; by 1834, the number of black seamen in the city nearly quadrupled. By 1837, the population and economy had grown so much that New Bedford officially became a city. Its 16,000 residents included 1,047 African Americans, 400 of whom were fugitive slaves.

Black men owned property, paid taxes, and could vote. Black families lived among white ones in some neighborhoods, and black children attended schools with white children, although they were seated separately.

In 1833, African Americans created the New Bedford Union Society, an antislavery group. A year later, white abolitionists created the New Bedford Anti-Slavery Society.

When Congress approved the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which required citizens to return runaway slaves to their masters, New Bedford Quakers Sarah Arnold and Elizabeth Rodman gathered 1,729 signatures to petition for its repeal.

By 1853, New Bedford housed 1,008 African American inhabitants; 700 of them were escaped slaves. By 1855, the city had 20,389 residents.
 
Lithograph of Union Army charging forward with flag at Battle of Fort Wagner.
"The Storming of Fort Wagner," 1890 lithograph by Kurz and Allison. Image courtesy: Wiki Commons
54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
The 54th Massachusetts was one of the first federally recognized African American regiments that fought in the Civil War. Local recruitment efforts were staged at the Tobey & Coggeshall building on William Street in New Bedford. More information.
 
Black and white photo of middle-aged Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass
After escaping slavery, Frederick Bailey came to New Bedford looking for work. While in the city, Bailey adopted the name Douglass, found his voice to speak out against slavery, and became one of the most notable men of the 19th century. More information.
 
Photo of statue memorializing Lewis Temple.
Lewis Temple memorial statue. Photo courtesy: NPS
Lewis Temple
After settling in New Bedford, African American blacksmith Lewis Temple revolutionized the whaling industry with a new harpoon design. More information.
 
The white house on Seventh Street belonged to advocates Nathan and Polly Johnson.
Nathan & Polly Johnson house. Photo courtesy: NPS
Nathan & Mary Johnson
Free African Americans Nathan and Mary "Polly" Johnson housed several escaped slaves in their Seventh Street home, including famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna. More information.
 
Silhouette of Paul Cuffe.
Silhouette, Paul Cuffe. Image courtesy: Library of Congress
Paul Cuffe
Born on Cuttyhunk Island to a freed African man and Native American woman, Paul Cuffe grew to become a successful whaling captain and respected member of his community. More information.
 
Sepia portrait of William Carney with his Medal of Honor.
William Carney. Photo by: James E. Reed
William Carney
Despite enduring intense enemy fire, William Carney returned the Union Army flag safely. He was the first African American to earn the Medal of Honor for his bravery. More information.

Last updated: August 28, 2018

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