New Bedford arts groups making connections: Historical society seeks to promote city’s abolitionist history

POD CAST ALERT: Listen to the interview with Bruce Mohl, Jasmyn Baird and Lee Blake on The Codcast.

THE NEW BEDFORD Historical Society, whose focus is the history of people of color in the South Coast city, appears poised for a takeoff.

The society is developing a park and a historic district centered around the abolitionist movement in New Bedford and the city’s role in the Underground Railroad. “Between 1790 and the Civil War, New Bedford became known not only as the whaling capital of the world, but also as one of the greatest asylums for fugitive former slaves,” said the proposal for the historic district designation.

Perhaps the most famous former slave was Frederick Bailey, who came to New Bedford in 1838 and stayed initially with Black merchants Nathan and Polly Johnson at their home on Seventh Street. It was Nathan Johnson who convinced Bailey to change his last name to Douglass; Frederick Douglass went on to become the most prominent abolitionist lecturer in the country, winning acclaim nationally and internationally.

Lee Blake, the president of the historical society, which is located in the former Johnson home, is grappling with how best to promote the city’s rich abolitionist history. “How do we market a five-block district where many of the houses were the houses of abolitionists?” she said on The Codcast. “How do we market that for a contemporary audience? What’s important about that?”

It’s a question Blake hopes to answer with the help of a $280,000 grant the Barr Foundation awarded to her organization and seven other arts and cultural groups in New Bedford for the purpose of building stronger connections with the local community. The other seven arts organizations are 3rd EyE Youth Empowerment, Buy Black New Bedford, New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks!, DATMA (Massachusetts Design Art & Technology Institute), New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, Cape Verdean Association in New Bedford, and the Co-Creative Center.

Jasmyn Baird, a senior fellow at New Bedford Creative, a city organization established to promote the arts, said the grant will allow the groups to participate in a training program called Creating Connection that is designed to build greater awareness of the arts in the community and stronger links between the arts groups and the people they serve.

The grant is another sign of New Bedford’s aggressive pursuit of art and cultural connections. The city already promotes AHA! (for Art, History, and Architecture), a program started in 1999 that features citywide cultural events on the second Thursday of every month. Mayor Jon Mitchell is also proposing to steer the largest chunk of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds — $18 million of the total $82 million — to arts, culture, hospitality, and tourism.

“That cultural sector draws a lot of folks in,” Mitchell said recently. “This is a set of sectors that we think could generate a pretty good return on investment.”

Blake said collaboration between arts groups and city government and among arts groups is key. “We’re a small community,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of corporate money, for instance, so leveraging each other’s skills becomes really important in order to develop what we have here.”

Planning is in the early stages for the Creating Connection initiative, but Blake sees a few possibilities for arts groups combining forces. “It’s very possible that the symphony will come and do outdoor music concerts in the [abolition] park,” she said.

She said the New Bedford Art Museum may team up with the city’s library, which over the years has received donated artwork but lacks the space to properly exhibit it. “How do we get the library and the art museum to get together and share their collections?” she asks. “The library doesn’t necessarily have the space to do this, but the art museum does. So right now, they’re looking at different ways of sharing their expertise. The art museum can put together the exhibit and the library can provide the art.”