Mello, Mark: Reflections on The Underground Railroad—What now?

Posted on July 10th, 2020 in American History,Race by LeGov

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Imagine growing up in a tightly bound community of no more than 60 people who worked from dawn to dusk and who were subjected to unimaginable indignities and torture. Why? Because they were African Americans born into slavery in the United States prior in the first half of the 19th century. They hoped and dreamed of freedom, freedom to an unknown place; that freedom served as a guide for those who risked their lives to flee the bondage.

Freedom for some was found in the seaport town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, where escaped former slaves were welcome. New Bedford was the richest city in the world in the 1850s, a city run by Quakers and other abolitionists, who created a safe haven for black people from the south. The 1,000 plus men and women who found refuge in New Bedford were more than enough to hide the newcomers as they arrived. Often the men found work on the whaling ships that ventured forth around the world from the New Bedford harbor. More can be learned about whaling in New Bedford in a two part Radio Curious program here.

In this series about New Bedford as a safe haven on the Underground Railroad, we explore the lives of freedom seeking ex-slaves who safely made the journey to the south east corner of Massachusetts. In this, the second of a two part program, we continue our visit with National Park Ranger Mark Mello. Part of Ranger Mello’s work is that of a tour guide interpreting the history and stories of pre-civil war New Bedford. His interpretations focus on the bravery and dedication of New Bedford residents at that time.

I joined Mark Mello’s walking tour about the Underground Railroad’s connection to New Bedford in the Old Town Section on September 2, 2016. This edition of Radio Curious begins with Ranger Mello’s story of Nathan and Polly Johnson, a free black couple who lived and worked there–he as a pharmacist and she a confectionary.

The books Mark Mello recommends are “Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts,” by Kathryn Grover; “Whale Hunt,” by Nelson Cole Haley; and “Leviathan,” by Philip Hoare.

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