At the end of 1853, the population of New Bedford was comprised of a higher percentage of African Americans than any other city in the Northeast, and almost 30% of those residents claimed they were born in the South. New Bedford was attractive to fugitive slaves and free blacks in part because of its major industries, the whaling and maritime trades, which have historically been the most welcoming occupations to people of all races. New Bedford also demonstrated a certain tolerance of diversity, and black leaders of the time were impressed with the political activity and degree of social organization among the city's people of color, coupled with some access to capital and integration in schools and some neighborhoods and workplaces. This black community was composed of vehement abolitionists and abolitionist supporters who were the audience of every principal antislavery lecturer in the United States. The city was appealing to fugitive slaves, and their population in New Bedford ranged at any time from 300 to 700.
Nathan and Mary Johnson married in New Bedford in 1819 and by the 1840s had well established economic means. They owned a confectioner's shop and other businesses, were well read in the political and social conditions of the nation and willing to help the abolitionist cause in many ways. Nathan Johnson was a steadfast delegate to the annual convention of free people of color from 1832-1835 and was elected the president of the 1847 National Convention of Colored People in Troy, New York. He and his wife also supported the movement by harboring fugitive slaves in their home. William C. Taber and Joseph Ricketson, two New Bedford Quakers, brought Frederick Douglass and his family to the Johnson home in September 1838. They resided there until 1839. The fact that Taber and Ricketson brought the Douglass family to the Johnsons suggests that the Johnson household was a common safe house for slaves in search of their freedom. Douglass himself attests to Nathan Johnson's regular practice of assisting fugitive slaves in all three of his well-known narratives. It is believed that the old Friends meetinghouse was a safe house for runaway slaves as well, however this has not been confirmed. The meetinghoue was not only the first house of public worship in New Bedford, but also the site of Benjamin Lundy's 1828 antislavery address.
The Nathan and Mary Johnson Properties are located at 17-19 and 21 Seventh St., in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Both buildings are privately owned, but tours are available by appointment. Appointments must be made 48 hours in advance. To make an appointment, call 508-979-8828.