Even now the Grinnell Mansion is an impressive site.
Set back on the west side of County Street as the great New Bedford hill slopes down toward the ocean, it still looks back at some of the other big whaling mansions on the east side of County.
New Bedford has a number of important whaling mansions still intact but in the long run, the greatest role the Grinnell estate ever played may have been when it served as the hiding place for an escaped slave.
Harriet Ann Jacobs, the author of the most important slave narrative written by an African-American woman, in 1852 was hidden at the New Bedford mansion after her slave owner came looking for her in New York City.
Jacobs had a long association with the Grinnell family, Quakers who had strong connections to abolitionist societies. It was Cornelia Grinnell Willis who employed Harriet as a nursemaid in New York and who arranged for her to be secreted out of the city and brought to New Bedford during a snowstorm. She later paid Daniel Messmore, who had married into the family that had owned Harriet, $300 for her freedom.
With the Southern slave owners, it seems, the ownership of other human beings was always about the money.
The New Bedford Historical Society last year nominated the Grinnell Mansion to be part of the National Underground Network to Freedom. That’s the same National Park Service program that gave the grant to put city abolitionist Joseph Congdon’s papers in order as an effort to better understand New Bedford’s role in the Underground Railroad.
“What the Historical Society is doing is adding sites that have documented historical importance to the Underground Railroad,” society president Lee Blake said. The society is creating a trail of sites in New Bedford connected to “nationally-known freedom seekers,” she said.
Besides Harriet Jacobs, they’ve succeeded in placing the home of Nathan and Polly Johnson on the network. The Johnsons, of course, were the leading African-American abolitionists who sheltered Frederick Douglass when he first arrived in the city. Other New Bedford sites on the trail include the National Park Center and the home of Civil War Medal of Honor winner Sgt. William H. Carney on Mill Street.
“We’re illustrating how important the city was to the freedom seekers who came here and stayed here and who were supported by the citizens of New Bedford,” Blake said.
Among the future plans is one to nominate the Bedford Street home of Lewis Temple, the African-American abolitionist inventor of the iron toggle harpoon, the tool that made whaling vastly more profitable.
Blake, a former high school teacher, said it is especially important for African-American and Cape Verdean youth to know about these historical struggles and achievements. “They give people a sense of pride in place and of themselves,” she said.
People across the world have read Harriet Jacobs’ biography and about her amazing life, she noted. When Harriet first escaped from slavery in North Carolina, for seven years she would hide in an attic at her grandmother’s where she could not fully stretch out or stand up.
Harriet ended up being the lifelong friend of Cornelia Willis who even risked her own infant daughter Lillian, whom she allowed to accompany Harriet in her transport to New Bedford. Cornelia seems to have believed that even if slave catchers might abduct Harriet back to the South, they would not dare abduct the baby of a prominent New York white family.
It was women, both black and white, who cared for Harriet, and whom Harriet cared for, Blake said. Over the course of her life, after Harriet had long left New Bedford, Cornelia and her daughters sent their former nursemaid books and money, articles they thought important for her pupils.
Harriet Jacobs, besides writing “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” under a pseudonym in 1861, went on to work as an educator, a nurse and lecturer, as well as running boarding houses in both Cambridge and Washington D.C.
“Those are the kinds of stories people need to see,” Blake said. “People took care of each other, regardless of race.”
With the addition of the Grinnell Mansion to the National Underground Network to Freedom, the story of Harriet Jacobs and Cornelia Grinnell Willis will now have a better chance of being known to a new generation of both New Bedford and national audiences.