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New Bedford Underground Railroad Study Funded by Park Partners

New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

National Park News

New Bedford, MA? Many residents know that New Bedford played an important role in the Underground Railroad network. Yet questions remain unanswered about fugitive slaves who settled in New Bedford. Were they employed on whaling ships or in the shore based maritime industry? How extensive and interconnected was the Underground Railroad web of assistance in New Bedford where blacks and whites, wealthy and middle class, resided in close proximity to each other? How did whites and blacks interact and provide assistance to fugitive slaves? A new study and walking tour guide funded by New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park partners will attempt to answer these questions.
In August, 2005 the Park received a $15,000 National Park Service Network to Freedom matching grant. Last month, the Henry H. Crapo Charitable Foundation generously awarded $10,000 to a joint proposal from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the New Bedford Historical Society and the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum. The City of New Bedford provided the final $5,000 match to fund this exciting project. ?We all recognized the importance of the undiscovered connections in this neighborhood,? said Celeste Bernardo, Superintendent of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. ?It was the perfect opportunity to pool our resources to make this study happen.? Kate Corkum, Executive Director of the The Rotch-Jones-Duff House expressed the sentiments of the partners, ?We look forward to the opportunity to better tell the story of this neighborhood through the valuable information that will be gained with this study.? The Rotch house, built in 1834 faces County Street amidst the grand houses that reflect the enormous wealth generated by the whaling trade. The property also abuts 7th Street and the neighborhood that housed the working class of the city, among them Frederick Douglass, at the Nathan and Polly Johnson House.
The study, which will be conducted by Historian Kathryn Grover will explore the relationships between New Bedford?s white whaling merchant elite who resided in mansions on County Street between Union and Allen Streets and African American and Cape Verdean middle and working-class who in the near neighborhood behind those mansions bounded by South Sixth Street on the east, Union Street on the north, and Wing Street on the South. The project will explore three overarching areas: (1.) the number of fugitive slaves in the neighborhood and extent information that can be documented about them; (2) the intricacies of the web of assistance between people of color and white whaling elite; and (3) the role that personal and business relationships played in the Underground Railroad in New Bedford. In addition, this research report will document historic properties in the neighborhood connected to the Underground Railroad including at least twenty-one pre1860 houses occupied by people of color and by whites who had significant associations with people of color. Of those twenty-one, eighteen have never been documented. The new information will be incorporated into public and school programs, exhibits, and a self-guided tour brochure. Visitors and school children coming to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Rotch-Jones-Duff House, and the Nathan and Polly Johnson House, will learn why African Americans traveled to New Bedford via the network, and what happened to them once they arrived. Lastly, information from the research report will be incorporated into an exhibit plan for the Nathan and Polly Johnson House, an education plan for New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, a furnishings plan for the Rotch-Jones-Duff House, and programming at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. This project will result in collaborations between the fore mentioned institutions and sites to document and tell a more cohesive story of the Underground Railroad in New Bedford.
New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park was established in 1996. The Park works in partnership with municipal and state agencies, non-profit institutions and community groups to preserve and interpret the story of America?s 19th century whaling history and related themes. The importance of interpreting the story of the Underground Railroad and the contributions of people of color in New Bedford were incorporated in the park?s planning documents, including the General Management Plan and Long Range Interpretive Plan.
For more information contact New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park at (508) 996-4095, or visit the park?s website at
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Prepared 12/10/2005 -NPS-

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