A memory. I am remembering another trip to New Bedford, Massachusetts. This was the second or third time that I visited the old seaport in order to give lectures on the Underground Railroad and maritime history.
When I wasn’t teaching, I also explored local museums, libraries and archives in order to see what they might teach me about the historic connections between that part of southern New England and the North Carolina coast.
But I didn’t just hang out with old books and manuscripts on my free time when I was in New Bedford.
I also wandered around the shipyards and fishing wharves. I returned to my favorite Azorean cafes.
Once I took the little passenger ferry to Cuttyhunk Island, 18 miles south of New Bedford at the far end of Buzzards Bay.
Another time, when I had a weekend off, I took a high-speed ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and spent the day.
On every trip to New Bedford, I wandered through the National Park Service’s New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, which is one of the places I gave lectures. Among its other attractions, the Historic Park includes Seamen’s Bethel, the chapel on Johnny Cake Hill that Ishmael visited in Moby-Dick, before he heads to sea.
At least once every trip, I also go back to St. Anthony of Padua, a beautiful old Catholic church originally founded to serve the French Canadians that came to New Bedford to work in the city’s textile mills late in the 19th century.
When I go to St. Anthony’s, I always get coffee and a pastry down the street at Lydia’s, one of my favorite Portuguese bakeries.
On every visit to New Bedford, I also did more research on a local whale oil company that had a bottlenose dolphin fishery at Hatteras Island, one of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
That company was called the William F. Nye Co. Its outpost on Hatteras Island played a central role in the lives of fishermen and their families in the villages of Hatteras and Trent Woods (now Frisco) roughly from 1906 to 1930.
I had limited free time during the day when I was in New Bedford, so I satisfied my curiosity by doing a little bit of research each trip.
On one trip, I searched through the newspaper files at the New Bedford Free Public Library. I was looking for stories in the local newspaper, the New Bedford Mercury, about the origins of the William F. Nye Co. in the 1860s and the opening of its Hatteras bottlenose dolphin fishery half a century later.
The library had an extremely impressive index to the newspaper. The special collection room’s librarian had laboriously compiled the index by hand over many years. The library also held a full set of the New Bedford Mercury on microfilm. I believe it is the only place in the U.S. where the paper was available, at least at that time.
The library is a beautiful old building, full of maritime oil paintings and other fine art from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and marble staircases, though in many respects it seems as if it has had better days.
Like so much of New Bedford, the library is a little threadbare and worn down, but still elegant and very interesting. Built in 1852, the library’s beauty (even if faded) comes from the days when New Bedford, because of the whale oil business, was one of the most prosperous cities in the U.S.
Those days are long gone. The city’s last whale oil company was actually the one in which I was interested, the William F. Nye Co. The company left Fish Island, on the Acushnet River, and moved across the river to the town of Fairhaven in the 1920s. For a time, a textile mill boom helped to make up for the jobs and money lost with the decline of the whaling industry, but eventually the textile mills closed, too.
The library is like New Bedford in another way: it celebrates the workingman and woman and the person of color.
That is true of New Bedford more than in any other city in the U.S. that I can think of. You can see that emphasis on laboring people and people of color in its museums and its historical markers.
You can also see it in the memorials to fishermen and sailors lost at sea that are next to the fishing wharves and ferry docks.
You can see it in the murals and other public art that you will discover as you walk the streets, too.
To an important degree, this is due to the extraordinary work of the New Bedford Historical Society, which is deeply committed to making the contributions of people of color a part of history.
The Society’s Black History Trail takes you to sites such as the 54thRegiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Plaza. During the Civil War, this was the location of the Union army’s local recruiting station for the first regiment of color that was recruited in the northern states.
Other sites on the New Bedford Historical Society’s Black History Trail range from the Frederick Douglass Monument at City Hall—Douglass was a New Bedford resident from 1838 to 1843— to Our Lady of Assumption Church, the first predominantly Cape Verdean parish in the U.S.
A pair of monuments at the New Bedford Free Public Library also emphasizes the city’s working people.
One sculpture, the Whalemen’s Statue, is a determined sailor in the bow of a whaleboat, rearing back to throw his lance.
The other statue portrays a local African American blacksmith, inventor and abolitionist named Lewis Temple. The figure of Temple, who lived from 1800 to 1854, is holding a whaler’s harpoon.
Temple invented the “toggle harpoon,” and it became an important tool in the whaling industry in New Bedford and around the world.
All of this took some getting used to.
I come from a different kind of place, and I am not accustomed to seeing monuments to people of color or to working-class individuals, of any color. I am certainly not used to seeing a statue of an African American leader such as Frederick Douglass on a city hall’s lawn.
To me these things help to make the city a special, revelatory and inspiring place. Except for my home in Durham, N.C., New Bedford is my favorite small city in America, and I always look forward to returning there. In that old whaling town, you walk the streets and you can’t help getting the sense that we can all make history.