Nathan and Mary (Polly) Johnson House

21 Seventh Street, New Bedford, MA

The Johnsons were abolitionists who had housed Frederick Douglass and at least two other formerly enslaved people in their home at 21 Seventh Street. Nathan Johnson, one of the two most affluent men of color in New Bedford, and his wife Mary (Polly), were businesspeople who began their careers as domestic servants. They owned a considerable amount of real estate, including two houses beside them and one on Spring Street. Polly’s catering and confectionery businesses were so successful that in 1880 Daniel Ricketson recalled that in the 1840s Johnson “and his worthy wife, ‘Polly,’ were the sine qua non at all the fashionable parties of our places, as caterers and waiters.” One 1913 reminiscence recalled “Polly Johnson’s candy shop on Seventh street, with its toothsome ginger cookies, sticks of candy and spruce gum. . . . Polly Johnson hobbled about her little candy shop exchanging the children’s pennies for Jackson-balls and John Brown’s bullets.” Johnson’s advertisement in a July 1830 issue of the New Bedford Mercury noted the availability of “Fresh Bordeaux Almonds; superior (French) Olives, Olive Oil, Prunes, Cocoa Nuts, Oranges, Lemons, Lemon Syrup, shelled Almonds, Spices, &c. &c. Confects, Jellies, Ice Cream, Cake, Candies, &c. as usual. Refreshments served up in the best manner, and charges moderate.” In 1845, in an effort to persuade Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips to speak in New Bedford, Deborah Weston wrote, “Polly Johnson shall freeze her best ice & ice her best cakes” if he should come. Nathan Johnson was probably better known as a proprietor of city institutions including a dry goods store and a bath house, as well as a caterer. In 1847 Johnson also owned a one-eighth share of the whaleship Draper.

Located on the County Street Historic District, the Nathan and Polly Johnson House became listed in both the National and State Registers in 1976. In 1998 with the help of the Massachusetts Historical Commission and New Bedford’s Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE (WHALE), the house was acquired by the New Bedford Historical Society. In 2000 the society explored the historical features of the property, which led to the development of construction plans and specifications for the exterior repair/restoration of the Johnson House.

The Johnson House is was primarily two buildings that were linked in the late 1850s. One house was from c.1820s and the other c. 1857. In its entirety, the home resembles a vernacular Georgian/Federal building.

Local history and self-guided tours are presented in collaboration with the New Bedford Historical Society and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. Visitors can also access interactive digital components, VR tours, and videos originally created for the New Bedford Historical Society and UMass Dartmouth’s exhibition, Black Spaces Matter: Celebrating New Bedford’s Abolition Row.

This exhibition will be shown free and open to the public in downtown New Bedford outdoors at the YMCA green space on Union Street, between N. 2nd Street and N. Water Street from June 16 to September 12.

CREDITS

The Black Spaces Matter project is collaboration between UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts students and faculty, local New Bedford experts, and the New Bedford Historical Society.

Black Spaces Matter was exhibited from November 19, 2017 — January 29, 2018 at the Boston Architectural College’s McCormack Gallery, 320 Newbury St. Boston, MA, and from November 8, 2018 — January 30, 2019 at UMass Dartmouth’s University Gallery, 715 Purchase St. New Bedford, MA 02740.

SUPPORT

Black Spaces Matter is supported by New Bedford Historical Society, Creative Economy Fund from the Office of the UMass President, UMass Dartmouth Provost Office, Perkins + Will Associates,  Rotch–Jones–Duff House and Garden Museum, Spinner Publications, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park.

PARTICIPANTS

Consultant: Lee Blake | Lead curator: Pamela Karimi | Architectural renderings, model production, and maps: Pedram Karimi and students in Architecture and Sustainability class | Film, animation, and digital curation: Don Burton | Artistic representations: Michael Swartz | Consultants for the Documentaries: Janine da Silva, Ann Marie Lopes | Advertisement and graphic design: Ziddi Msangi, Racsa Soun, Vasco Pedro and students in Community Engagement Design studio | Digital stations: Michael Swartz, Don Burton, Ben Guan-Kennedy, and Merri Cyr | Production Manager: Jennifer McGrory | Curatorial assistance: CVPA students, Cynthia Raposa, Mark Walker, and gallery director, Viera Levitt.

Understanding the Past: Abolition Row as Counterpublic, by Don Burton Media. Originally created for the New Bedford Historical Society and UMass Dartmouth’s exhibition, Black Spaces Matter: Celebrating New Bedford’s Abolition Row.

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