NEW BEDFORD — The figure due to emerge from under a black shroud at the opening of Abolition Row Park near downtown New Bedford on Friday is Frederick Douglass, but perhaps not the one you know.

This Frederick Douglass is not yet the rock star on the 19th-century lecture circuit, a leader of a movement to end slavery, the stern advocate and writer in a dark coat and cravat with a lion’s mane of gray hair who shared company with Abraham Lincoln and other American presidents.

This is the young Frederick Douglass, getting his legs under him in a new life as a free man in the North, the soil of a Maryland plantation freshly shaken off his boots. Dressed in working man’s attire, he is earning his first free wages on the wharves and elsewhere. The great work lies ahead. He appears to have a lot on his mind.

The sculptor meant it that way, casting the figure’s gaze downward suggesting not despair but inner thought. The pensive expression, the deep crease between the eyes, are familiar from dozens of photographs Douglass posed throughout his life, cultivating a dignified demeanor, getting that image out into the white world and hoping to advance abolitionism by showing the humanity of Black people.

The New Bedford Historical Society led the effort to establish the pocket park at Seventh and Spring streets in hopes of spreading the word about the city’s role in abolitionism in general and Douglass’s life in particular. In appearing from under a veil there, a block south of Union Street, Douglass in a way comes home.

In 1838, after fleeing Maryland’s Eastern Shore, passing through Delaware, Philadelphia, New York and Newport, the young man then named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey found refuge right across the street from the park. For about a year he lived in the home of Black abolitionists Nathan and Mary, or “Polly,” Johnson, once an important stop on the Underground Railroad and now the Historical Society’s headquarters.


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The Johnson House — the only home still standing where Douglass is known to have lived in his six years in New Bedford — is the northernmost point of a stretch of historic blocks from Spring south to Wing that in its day formed a stronghold of anti-slavery activism. The cluster of homes sandwiched between Pleasant and County streets included Underground Railroad stops and has become known as “Abolition Row,” featured for years by the society as part of the Black History Trail.

“We want people to know how important the Black population was here,” said Lee Blake, president of the society. She said the new park is part of an effort to “make sure young people know that there are all these possibilities for action.”

Ideas about a park as a centerpiece of this abolitionist enclave began taking shape after the society acquired the property more than 10 years ago. The organization orchestrated the project, in conjunction with the city Department of Planning, lashing together about $900,000 in grants from government agencies and private donations and breaking ground in 2017. The sculpture alone cost about $275,000, Blake said.

The park space once held two houses, one of them eyed by the society as a possible bookstore. That plan was dropped after the building was badly damaged by a fire that started in the house next door. Eventually the society bought both lots, not quite 4,200 square feet.

Lee Blake sitting in Abolition Row Park in front of a quote by noted abolitionist Nathan Johnson. Credit: Jonathan Leblanc-Unger / Petarenapro

That was enough. The space inspired dreams about a place where people might gather to consider, as Blake said, “Abolition Row and what stories it tells.”

The park includes a gazebo to be used for performances, an array of images and quotations of abolitionists, a serpentine stone walkway suggesting a circuitous path to freedom, and a black water wall emblazoned with the words “Freedom for All Mankind,” a quote from the headstone of Nathan Johnson, who suggested Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey adopt the name Frederick Douglass.

One powerful story Abolition Row tells is about Douglass — who is already pictured a few blocks away in a mural near Bristol County Probate Court and on a plaque outside City Hall — so he had to be there. But not the established statesman. The planners let the sculptor know that they wanted a young version.

That was fine with Richard Blake, no relation to Lee Blake, the Pennsylvania sculptor who landed the commission. Blake, who had already done a sculpture for the campus of West Chester University in southeastern Pennsylvania of Douglass the established abolitionist, said the notion of a younger Douglass suggested its own compelling meanings.

Blake said “the will, and the tenacity to pursue is what I found fascinating,” not least for the potential message to young folks of perseverance in the face of adversity.

While he consulted with the park planners along the way, Blake said he was given plenty of artistic leeway.

The Douglass figure in Pennsylvania is standing, but Richard Blake, who said he likes the concentrated mass of a seated figure, got the idea for that configuration while driving back to his home near Lancaster, Pennsylvania from his first visit to New Bedford very early in 2020.

At first, the figure was to be seated on a stone block, but stone was in short supply due to the pandemic. As an alternative, Richard Blake reached for the biographical detail that Douglass had worked as a caulker on the New Bedford waterfront. The figure who will appear at the park sits on a coil of mooring rope that might be found at a wharf. It happens that the rope could also be read as a symbol of bondage. The Douglass figure in Pennsylvania, for example, is draped with a length of severed rope.

Blake said he hoped the thoughtful facial expression would suggest a rich inner life, conveying the potential of the historic figure yet to emerge. Douglass’s future is also suggested in two anachronistic touches: a cane and a rolled sheaf of papers.

The cane the figure holds out in front of him in his right hand represents the walking stick given to Douglass by Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln. The papers in his left hand are meant to suggest the newspaper Douglass would establish years later, the North Star, and “not just information, but knowledge at its deepest roots,” Richard Blake said.

Ceremonies to start at 1 p.m. are to include remarks from Mayor Jon Mitchell, and Everett Hoagland, the city’s first poet laureate. Also scheduled are musical performances by four string players from the symphony orchestras in New Bedford and Boston, and baritone Philip Lima, a New Bedford native who has soloed with the Boston Pops and orchestras across the country and overseas.

The event will culminate at the north end of the park, near Spring, where Douglass — cast in silicon bronze and weighing nearly 1,000 pounds — waits under wraps. Lee Blake said the organizers made sure that children will be included to help lift a black veil, because “we want to make sure our young people have pride in the Black community here.”

Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at ahirsch@petarenapro.com.



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