Boston, Sunday May 1
Boston is a great city to visit. I do not intend to try to cover the city in detail, our blog posts only cover our current activities. Since we have been here often, we keep searching out activities we have not done before. Three National Park Service units fell into this category; one, Blackstone River, we covered in the previous post.
Friday, Deb took the day off from work and joined us as we toured the Boston African-American National Historic Site. Through exhibits, video, walks, and ranger talks we learned about the role Boston played in the early days of abolition; and by implication, the mixed history of advances and retreats in how America has dealt with slavery. For while recent history is not the focus of this historic site, one can not help but remember the difficult days in Boston of the 1970s when school integration and busing showed the undercurrent of bias still present in American society.
But the focus here is the 1700 and 1800s. Boston can rightly be proud of the steps taken to end slavery and discrimination. A small population of African-Americans were at the core of the efforts, individually and as a group. Due to the efforts of one slave, Quok Walker who sued for his freedom, Massachusetts was the first state to abolish slavery, in 1783.
While slavery was abolished, discrimination was not. Schools were segregated until 1855. Until then, separate but unequal schools were the norm. This National Historic site occupies the site of the first public school, Abiel Smith School, which was the first black public school opened in 1835. Before that, the community educated their children at the African Meeting House, next door to Abiel Smith.
Black Americans were strong in their efforts to bring slaves north through the Underground Railroad. Writers were an important source of protest throughout the country. The African Meeting House, another part of this historic site, was the center of speakers and activists. White churches, however, were not necessarily the leaders in integration. When one member of the Third Baptist Church of Boston invited black friends to join him in his pew, he was expelled from the church.
In 1863, two years after the start of the Civil War, Massachusetts formed the first all-black regiment raised in the north. Most of its member came from Boston. The regiment was the basis of the 1989 film “Glory” that won Academy Awards.
After all of that learning, we replenished our spirit at Legal Sea Foods and decided to call it a day.
Saturday Rebecca joined the three of us and we headed an hour south to New Bedford. Last year Chris and I visited Salem, a city that was the center of international shipping for the U.S.beginning after the Revolutionary War and continuing to about the time of the Civil War. New Bedford, in contrast, was a whaling center. From 1780 to 1920, ships from many countries hunted whales for their oil. Whale oil was used for lighting homes and lubricating machinery. Whales were hunted in the North Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans. While petroleum started to be produced in the 1860s in Pennsylvania, whale oil continued to be used for several decades.
During the first half of the 1800s, New Bedford became the whaling capital of the world. Fortunes were made, and lost. The work was hard and unglamorous. The men who worked on the ships made their pay only if the ship was succesful in finding whales and in getting it back to New Bedford safely. The owners of the ships made the big bucks and while, as usual, hard work was part of the foundation of their wealth; the role of luck and the hard work of low paid men always seemed to be glossed over.
We toured the home of one such lucky, wealthy family, the Rotch-Jones-Duff house. It features the usual ornate fireplaces, high ceilings, delicate wallpaper, and ornate china and glass dishes. The gardens were not blooming yet, it seems that MA is blooming slower than MN this year. The original builder would have been a billionaire in today’s dollars. Rotch was wise enough to move his operations from Nantucket to New Bedford and to vertically integrate the whale oil business; sort of a precursor to the Standard Oil concept for petroleum.
The exhibits at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park and at the privately owned New Bedford Whaling Museum presented well the diverse people who made whaling a success. The ships were at sea for 4-6 years. The crews became a mix of men from the U.S. but also from the Azores, Cape Verde Islands, Pacific Islands, and Hawaii. The ships became, by default, U.S. ambassadors by making international ports of call and intermingling people, ideas, and trade goods all across the globe. Barrow Alaska and New Bedford developed a connection due to the whale hunting in the Arctic Ocean.
New Bedford as a community was founded by Quakers who led the city for many years and shaped its development. Their more pacificist attitudes and advocacy of abolition made the community an important stop in the Underground Railroad. Blacks were able to work on whaling ships. Frederick Douglas, the black abolitionist orator and writer, lived in New Bedford for a number of years.
After the Civil War, as petroleum started to supplant whale oil, forward-looking merchants began to diversify and New Bedford moved from a whaling center to an industrial center. Textile and glass manufacturing was a major industry but numerous other manufacturing factories kept the town thriving for decades.
On our way out of town, we made our expected stop at Dunkin Donuts before dinner in downtown Waltham. Biaggio’s, an Italian restaurant, served us well in wrapping up the day in fashion.
Ed and Chris
Sunday May 1, 10 PM