Frederick Douglass -- New Bedford Life
Frederick Douglass was surprised at what he saw of the houses and the docks of
. 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. New Bedford
In the afternoon of the day when I reached
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 New Bedford . 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 Baltimore . 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
housekeeper placed two silver dollars in Douglass’s blackened hands, and he
drifted away on a cloud. … Peabody
... 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
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. … New Bedford
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 ’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
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
’s black community. Initially, maintaining his commitment to the New Bedford , 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. Methodist Church
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971. Print
of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass.
, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print. New