1838 Fredrick Douglass Arives in New Bedford

In September of 1838, a young Frederick Johnson began his life as a free man in New Bedford. Frederick Johnson would later take the name Frederick Douglass and become the most famous African-American of his time. In 1838 though, Douglass was less concerned with fame and more with making a life for himself and his new wife.

One of the first things that struck Douglass about New Bedford was the high standard of living enjoyed by people in the town. Douglass pointed out people in the laboring class often enjoyed a better lifestyle than many slave-owners in the south. Another striking quality of New Bedford was the racial tolerance. Quakers, who were some of slavery’s most outspoken opponents, played a large role in the town’s affairs. As a result much of their racial tolerance could be seen throughout the town. New Bedford’s black community grew to over a thousand people who were attracted to the prosperity of the town as well as its tolerant policies. At the time, Massachusetts was one of only five states that allowed blacks to vote. This fact alone attracted many free blacks and runaway slaves to the state.

Despite the stunning first impression, Douglass soon realized that the town’s racial tolerance did not extend to the workplace. Douglass was trained as a ship caulker, a job that netted a very high wage for the time. He was fortunate enough to be able to get a job in his trade upon arriving in New Bedford. However, upon being hired, Douglass was told by one of his coworkers that every white man would quit the job and leave the ship unfinished the moment Douglass tried to work with them. Douglass was forced to take a job as a laborer, where he was paid half as much as he would have been as a caulker.

Though losing his job as a caulker was a large financial setback for Douglass, there was a much more lasting benefit to it. While working on the New Bedford docks with free black men, Douglass said that he became “imbued with the spirit of liberty.” Douglass also attended a speech by the famous Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Upon hearing this speech, Douglass decided that his life’s work must be to free his brothers and sisters who remained in bondage.

Douglass’s efforts were not limited to those who remained in slavery; his experiences working in New Bedford inspired him to help free black workers as well. Douglass sought to secure the jobs of black workingmen and improve the conditions they worked under. Labor unions were the most effective way to do this, however, at this time many labor organizations did not admit blacks. Determined to bring organized labor to black workers, Douglass helped organize the American League of Colored Laborers in 1850. This union served to foster training in agriculture and the industrial arts as well as encourage laborers to start their own businesses.

New Bedford’s impact on the life of Frederick Douglass was vital to his future work. The unique tolerance and high living quality showed Douglass that a better world was obtainable. Discrimination in the town inspired Douglass to dedicate his life to the pursuit of freedom for all his black brothers and sisters.