“We have a shared history as Americans in a democratic society,” says Lee Blake. “Our focus is on the history of New Bedford’s people of color: African American, West Indian, Cape Verdean, Native American. Their stories need to be told; their stories are important.”
New Bedford’s heritage as a stop on the Underground Railroad and a refuge for escaped slaves established a cultural ethos of comparative tolerance. The City became an early adopter of multiethnic integration in the workforce as well as in education. The Whaling era followed by the Industrial Revolution brought people of many nationalities to the City where their descendants live today. New Bedford is still a crossroad for multiculturalism and holds a treasure of untold stories about exceptional individuals of every race who were activists for the tenants of freedom, equality, and the proposition that all men are created equal.
Ms. Blake notes that much of New Bedford’s historical narrative has been created by white whalers and prominent white figures. “The perspective of people of color who lived the experience is different, and the Historical Society advocates for people to tell their own stories, encouraging and helping them to craft their narratives.”
Celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year, the New Bedford Historical Society has acquired two derelict lots on 7th Street, across from its home in the Nathan and Polly Johnson House on Abolition Row Historic District. The Abolition Row Park, located in the Seaport Cultural District, will open in June 2022, and honor the courageous people willing to put their lives on the line for strangers and the principles of freedom. In September, the Park’s centerpiece will be installed: a bronze statue of Frederick Douglass who escaped slavery in 1838 to build a life and family in New Bedford and became a national leader in the Abolitionist Movement.
For Lee Blake, inclusivity continues to be at heart of the Historical Society’s mission. She sees community participation and input as the cornerstone to historical expression. “It was the community who decided Frederick Douglass’ statue will represent him as he first appeared in New Bedford, a 20-year-old refugee from slavery.