Thursday, January 5, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- New Bedford Life
 
Frederick Douglass was surprised at what he saw of the houses and the docks of New Bedford.  He had been taught that those who did not own slaves were of the lowest economic station.  In the slave-free North he had expected to “meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp,, and grandeur of southern slaveholders.
 
In the afternoon of the day when I reached New Bedford, I visited the wharves, to take a view of the shipping.  Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth.  Lying at the wharves, and riding in the stream, I saw many ships of the finest model, in the best order, and of the largest size.  Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite warehouses of the widest dimensions, stowed to their utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts of life.  Added to this, almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with that I had been accustomed to in Baltimore.  There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships.  I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer.  I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on.  Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man.  To me this looked exceedingly strange.  From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and admiration at the splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding Maryland.
 
Every thing looked clean, new, and beautiful.  I saw few or no dilapidated houses, with poverty-stricken inmates; no half-naked children and bare-footed women.  … But the most astonishing as well as the most interesting thing to me was the condition of the colored people, a great many of whom, like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men.  I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland. 
 
I found employment, the third day after my arrival, in stowng a sloop with a load of oil.  It was new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it with a glad heart and a willing hand.  … It was the first work, the reward of which was to be entirely my own.  … I worked that day with a pleasure I had never before experiences.  I was at work for myself and newly-married wife.  It was to me the starting-point of a new existence (Douglass 115-116, 117).
 
Two days later “He saw a pile of coal that had been unloaded in front of an attractive home.  Douglass … dressed for dirty work … went around to the back door and asked the woman in the kitchen if he might put the coal away for her.
 
“What will you charge?” she asked.
“I’ll leave that to you, madam.”
 
 
When the work was finished, the Reverent Peabody’s housekeeper placed two silver dollars in Douglass’s blackened hands, and he drifted away on a cloud. …
 
... Someone mentioned a ship which Rodney French, a wealthy antislavery men, was fitting out for a whaling voyage.  A big job of calking and coopering remained to be done on the vessel, work for which Douglass was amply qualified and for which the prevailing wage in New Bedford was two dollars a day.  The owner, to whom Fred applied, agreed to hire the newcomer and directed him to the float-stage where the work was in progress. …
 
Heads began to wag ominously as he approached the ship.  Though no objections were raised in New Bedford when Negro children attended public schools with whites, though a warm and friendly attitude existed toward black people generally, though a Negro who informed on a runaway slave had recently found it advisable to leave town to escape public indignation, and though many of the most influential citizens were outspoken of the slave’s cause, another attitude—less talked about in public, perhaps—came to the surface when Douglass met the white men of his trade in the shipyard.  He couldn’t work there as a caulker, they informed him bluntly.  He couldn’t do any skilled work on French’s vessel or any other.  If he struck one blow at his trade, every white man engaged on the ship would walk off and leave it unfinished.  They had no personal objection to the black men, but he would have to do unskilled work for which the wage was one dollar a day instead of two (Bontemps 19, 20-21).
 
… Having been taught a lesson about bigotry in the free North, Douglass took the dollar-a-day mob.
 
More day-labor jobs followed: “I sawed wood, shoveled coal, dug cellars, moved rubbish from back-yards, worked on the wharves, loaded and unloaded vessels, and scoured their cabins.”  The Douglasses were desperately poor the first winter.  There was little work then for a male day laborer, and Anna, pregnant, was not working.  In the spring, the docks grew busy and jobs were plentiful.  For a time, Frederick worked the bellows in Richmond’s brass foundry.  Finally, he reached out again to the Quaker merchants and obtained a steady job with set wages in the whale-oil refinery of one of his companions on the coach [which took him and Anna to New Bedford that first day], Joseph Ricketson.  Moving the casks of oil “required good wind and muscle,” which Douglass proudly remembered, he had in full measure.  He felt pride in his body as he gained the respect of his fellow “all white” workers:  “I soon made myself useful, and I think liked by the men who worked with me.”
 
 
Children are born; dates are given—Rosetta on June 24, 1839, and Lewis Henry sixteen months later on October 9, 1840—but we are told little about the events. 
 
Frederick and Anna Douglass seemed to be settling permanently into New Bedford’s black community.  Initially, maintaining his commitment to the Methodist Church, even though he had to sit in the galley.  But one Sunday, having come downstairs and waited while the white communicants took the sacrament, he saw how the unctuous Revered Isaac Bonney, looking toward “the corner where his black sheep seemed penned,” called them forward separately and condescendingly.  Thomas Auld’s hypocrisy seemed on display once more.
 
Frederick then turned far in the other direction; he was drawn to the “deep piety” and the ‘high intelligence” of the Reverend William Serrington at New Bedford’s Zion chapel, a congregation in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination, founded by black Methodists in New York City late in the eighteenth century.  The Zionists … had broken away from the white Methodists churches because they were relegating blacks to back pews and generally and increasingly making them unwelcome.  The Zion chapel, which held its meetings in a schoolhouse on Second Street, was to be the Douglass family’s anchor in New Bedford: “the days I spent in little Zion, New Bedford, in the several capacities of sexton, stewart, class leader, clerk, and local preacher … [were] among the happiest days of my life” (McFeely 80, 81, 82).
 
 
Works Cites:
 
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971.  Print
 
Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.  Print.
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.