NEW BEDFORD — Frederick Douglass Way is just a short street behind Elm Street Garage.
The street is downtown yet it’s sandwiched between a parking lot and a parking garage. There is no plaque or sign explaining why it was named after the renowned abolitionist and author and what his connection is to New Bedford.
That oversight is being corrected with plans for an historical plaque to be placed on the side of the garage. The New Bedford Historical Society also would like to place plaques at other places with ties to Douglass, including the stagecoach stop and the house of a minister who helped him.
Lee Blake, president of the NBHS, said they hope to have the plaque for Frederick Douglass Way completed by September. She said it will be like other historical plaques in the city and will have a photo of a young Douglass.
The renewed focus on Douglass’s ties to New Bedford is timely because 2018 is the 200th anniversary of his birth. According to historical accounts, Douglass chose Feb. 14, 1818, as his birthday although he wasn’t sure of the actual date. Douglass and his wife, Anna, arrived in New Bedford on Sept. 17, 1838, by stagecoach from Newport, Rhode Island. At the time, the stagecoach stop was at T. Cole’s Cafe. Today it’s the site of Moby Dick Brewery, 16 Water St.
Bob Unger, a co-owner of the brewery, said he’d heard there was some connection to Douglass but didn’t know what it was.
“We’d be very interested in exploring the history of the site and the connection to Frederick Douglass,” Unger said. He said that while the city’s whaling past is well known, its diversity and the ties to Douglass should be celebrated, too. “We would be pleased to honor him.”
Blake said they are looking into having a plaque at 174 Union St., where Ephraim Peabody of the First Unitarian Church lived.
“The Rev. Peabody gave Douglass his first job shoveling coal and then allowed Douglass to use his library," Blake said. "Douglass writes about Peabody's kindness and the joy he had earning his first wages as a free man in New Bedford.”
Douglass was the son of an enslaved woman and, it is assumed, her white master in Maryland. He escaped at the age of 20. When he first arrived in New Bedford with his wife, Anna, he lived with Nathan and Polly Johnson, African American abolitionists, at 21 Seventh St.
This area of New Bedford is now known as Abolition Row. The designation is fitting because at one time some 17 abolitionists called the area home. The historical society is planning to build a park here, too.
Historical records are a little unclear but it appears that Douglass lived in New Bedford at least until his son Frederick was born on March 3, 1842. One of the local brochures published by the historical society says he lived here until about 1843.
While some may say the city should have done more to honor Douglass sooner, it did place a monument to him outside City Hall in 1996, the same year the street behind Elm Street Garage was renamed for him.
Blake said things have changed and today there is “this whole wave” of people who are interested in Black History. She said today if they hold a conference on Black History, “People hang off the rafters. It’s a different time.”