What a place mid-19th century New Bedford must have been!
The whaling economy humming; a large population of escaped slaves, some of whom had grown prosperous; and an integrated school system.
Say what? An integrated school system? In 1849?
Yes, an integrated school system, and not only a school system that had been long integrated, but a system that was known as one of the best in the state.
I’m hardly an expert on 19th century New Bedford but I’ve long known, that at least comparatively, New Bedford was a forward-looking place in the 1830s and ‘40s.
Call it the relative open-mindedness and dedication to fair play of the Quakers, who were such an important part of the life of the city from the beginning.
Call it the influence of the rugged whaling industry, whose far-flung ships rewarded ability, not background.
Call it the determination of the “self-emancipated” African-Americans who took the risk to flee a life of bondage and come to a community where they would have at least half a chance to advance themselves.
A few weeks ago, researching some art for a story that the Sunday paper was doing on the archive material that James B. Congdon left to the New Bedford library, I asked Jay Avila over at Spinner what he might have to illustrate it.
Jay searched diligently and though he did not have any photos of the guy who is most responsible for founding the modern New Bedford public school system and library, what he did have was an astonishing August 10, 1849 letter from Congdon to a member of the Boston School Committee.
In that letter, Congdon tells the Boston officials that New Bedford not only was running an integrated school system, but that it had essentially been running one since the common school movement began a few decades earlier.
“Our colored children have always attended our public schools,” he wrote.
He explained a few lines later: “The colored children would not attend any school established exclusively for them.” Congdon was perhaps alluding to the fact that scholars tell us in 19th century New Bedford, African-Americans (who were about a tenth of the population) had political power because they voted.
The Congdon letter was published in the Nov. 9, 1849 edition of The Liberator, which of course was the most prominent abolitionist newspaper of the day.
From the letter’s text, it appears the Boston committee was considering establishing separate schools for African-American children. Congdon as much as warned them against it: “I cannot, of course, judge of the effect, in your city, of the plan you propose; but it appears to me that the evils which now trouble you, and which are demanding the attention of your School Board, are of a character not to be remedied by changing the complexion of the teacher.”
What a wonderful thing for New Bedford to know about itself!
That it integrated its schools before Boston, probably long before the rest of the North. That it had leaders such as James Congdon who had thought through the catastrophic effects of prejudice long before the rest of the country.
The mid-19th century leaders of New Bedford knew that there was no essential difference in the abilities of black children and white children, they knew that there was no essential difference in the abilities of black teachers and white teachers, and they knew that integrating the schools would only advance the city.
Kathryn Grover, in her seminal 2001 study of escaped slaves and abolition in New Bedford, describes how one of the most prominent African-American proponents of desegregation in Boston, argued that New Bedford’s integrated schools were the reason that the city’s residents as a whole respected the African-American residents. The Boston leader, William C. Nell, was referring to the peaceful annual African-American celebrations in New Bedford of the 1844 emancipation of the British West Indies.
According to Grover, Nell did not value integration because it would “improve” colored children if they were mixed with whites, but because it would give African-American children access to resources, and perhaps most importantly because “day-to-day interaction between white and black children was bound to have a humanizing effect on both.”
It is very difficult to hate someone you have grown up with. It is very difficult to stereotype someone with whom you are deeply familiar.
This news that New Bedford led the nation in integrating schools is one more thing about our great whaling city’s heritage to be justly proud of.
Do not be confused. It is not that New Bedford has always led the way on all things integration.
Like all cities, New Bedford changed over time, and battles fought and won in the 1830s, sometimes had to be fought again.
By 1994, as the demographics of New Bedford had once again changed with a new wave of immigrants, the U.S. department of Education found that academic tracking in the city’s schools discriminated against some black and Hispanic students. The system then eliminated block scheduling that had led students to be assigned to one ability level for all subjects.
New Bedford is a complex city with centuries of good and bad. But it is an important American city, leading the world in the 19th century economy and also leading the way in the abolition of slavery and setting an example of equal access to opportunity.
It was not a perfect place in 1849 and it is not a perfect place in 2018. But it is a place with a proud history, a place that is indispensable to the American story.
Letter to member of Boston School Committee