With grateful hearts, Cape Verdeans recount ancestors’ journey to U.S.
By SIMÓN RIOS
April 27, 2014 12:00 AM
NEW BEDFORD — Julius Britto and Salah Mattos have known each other for the better part of four decades, two Cape Verdeans hailing from SouthCoast. But not until noontime Saturday would they realize they shared the same magical story, a tale so important to each that, had it turned out differently, they might not be around to tell it.
“It’s a story that we used to hear, but we didn’t really know if it was real or not, but they kept telling us about it,” said Britto, sitting before a group celebrating Dia Cultura de Cabo Verde an event sponsored by the New Bedford Historical Society.
Britto volunteered during a session led by his cousin, the storyteller Len Cabral. Cabral opened the floor and Britto told of the schooner Notice, a U.S.-bound vessel packed with Cape Verdean immigrants in 1902.
Britto, a Rochester resident and president of the Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey Association, approached the front of the room. He said his great-grandfather, Ben Varela, first came to the area around 1898 as a whaler. As he came to know the region’s cranberry bogs, he decided it would be a fine place to raise his family.
In 1902, he bought land in Rochester, where the family still has property. Things turned out well for the family, but Varela and his kin nearly lost their lives in the Atlantic Ocean.
“While they were coming over, there was a very, very bad storm,” Britto said.
With the boat disabled, the captain apparently jumped ship, killing himself and leaving the passengers to fend for themselves.
His great-grandfather acted quickly to secure his great-grandmother, grandmother and great-aunt to the main mast to prevent them from going overboard. Then, he and the second mate took over the ship. “And they survived,” he said.
Stranded and convinced they were going to die, their fortune changed when an Italian liner came looming upon them, towing the battered vessel to New York Harbor.
Mattos also had ancestry tying back to the schooner. At 81, the Fairhaven resident said he’d never heard the story told by anyone else but his grandmother.
“My grandmother said that they thought they were going to die,” he said.
“She was dizzy. There was no food, no water, no nothing. They just was there. And this big ship came upon them, and they asked the people in the boat, did they want water and food or their life, and my grandmother said everybody said, ‘Queremos vida.’ They wanted life. And they throw this big rope down, tied it onto the ship, and the ship was brought into New York.”
People in the audience wiped the tears from their cheeks after he finished.
“I want to thank you for that story,” Mattos said, “because that’s my story.”
Britto said they always believed the story as it was told, but they never thought much about it until his sister went to Ellis Island and found the Notice’s manifest. On it were the names of their ancestors.
They later found a 1902 New York Times article chronicling the saga. According to the article, dated Aug. 6, the Italian steamship Sardegna reached port from Naples with a “little battered, waterlogged, almost dismasted schooner” in tow.
The 71-foot schooner had been built 35 years before in Gloucester. On June 27, it had set sail for Providence, and on July 21, it was “struck by a squall which carried away several spars and spread her planking.”
Sighted by the Sardegna 13 days later, the Notice was “drifting helplessly.”
“They were all natives of Brava, which is one of the Cape Verde group of islands, and were bound to join the Portuguese colony near Providence, R.I.,” the article said.
A subsequent Times story reported that 30 of the schooner’s 47 passengers were not on the manifest, giving rise to suspicions that they were being smuggled.
On Aug. 10, the Times reported that nine of the passengers had been released from Ellis Island.
More than 100 years later, in a hall at the New Bedford Whaling National Historial Park, sat three men whose ancestry dates back to that incredible passage.
Cabral said it had been told to him by his father.
“He told that story when he was a teenager,” Cabral recounted. “He came to a Cape Verdean’s house in New Bedford, and you know when you go to a Cape Verdean house, the grandmother or the elder in the house would say, ‘Who’s your mother? Who’s your father? Who’s this? Who’s that?”
“And he said my grandfather is Ben Varela, and she (gasped), and she hugged him and cried, and she told him the story that he just told you. She said your grandfather saved us.”
Cabral smiled contentedly. The power of storytelling had been proved.
“So thank God people say, ‘Who’s your mother? Who’s your father? What’s your mother’s maiden name?'”
Community Preservation Act is the Focus of
New Bedford Historical Society Annual Meeting
The public is invited to attend the New Bedford Historical Society’s 18th Annual Meeting on Wednesday, October 8 at 6:30 PM in the 3rd floor conference room of the New Bedford Free Public Library. The meeting will include a report to the membership by President Lee Blake and committee chairs. Reports will include future plans for programs and a presentation on the Community Preservation Act. “We want everyone to get the chance to hear of all the resources that may benefit from the passage of the Community Preservation Act which will be on the ballot in November”, says Lee Blake, President of the Society. “New Bedford is a great example of how historic preservation can serve to rebuild a community and CPA can bring additional support to strengthen the efforts to share our local history and the legacy of people of color.”
In addition to a presentation on the Community Preservation Act, the guest speaker will be Marilyn Halter, Professor of History and American Studies at Boston University. Professor Halter is a Research Associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. Her books include African & American: West Africans in Post-Civil Rights America (with Violet Showers Johnson); Shopping for Identity: The Marketing of Ethnicity; Between Race and Ethnicity: Cape Verdean American Immigrants, 1860-1965; and The Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Cape Verde with Richard Lobban. Professor Halter serves as co-editor of the “New England in the World” series at University of New Hampshire Press and co-chairs the Boston Immigration and Urban History Seminar in conjunction with the Massachusetts Historical Society.
The New Bedford Historical Society was founded in October 1996 as a non-profit historic preservation organization dedicated to documenting and celebrating the history, legacy and presence of African Americans, Cape Verdeans, Native Americans, West Indians and other people of color in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The Society’s signature accomplishment has been the acquisition and restoration of the Nathan and Polly Johnson House, the first free home of Frederick Douglass.
A reception with light refreshments will follow the business meeting and program. All members and guests are welcome to attend the annual meeting. To RSVP for the meeting please call the Society office at 508-979-8828 or email us at email@example.com as seating is limited.
Press release October 19, 2014
The Veteran’s Legacy: A Documentation and Preservation Workshop
We all know the old question, “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” In 2014 we are commemorating events from several wars in our nation’s past—some, like the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War I, whose last veterans passed long ago, some, such as World War II and the Korean War, in which we are in a race against time to record the memories of those who fought and those who kept them in the field. In honor of Veteran’s Day, the New Bedford Historical Society is reaching out to the community to make sure the stories of our veterans are saved. On November 8, museum consultant Madelyn Shaw will lead “The Veteran’s Legacy: A Documentation and Preservation Workshop” at 2:30 to 4:30 PM. Shaw will discuss how to document and preserve a veteran’s story or acknowledge their service. The workshop will be held at the Corson Building at the New Bedford Whaling National Park at 33 William Street.
World War II veterans are now entering their 80’s and many have unforgettable accounts that contribute to family as well as national history. Recently the National Archives and Library of Congress teamed up on The Veterans History Project, which gives every veteran the tools and opportunity to contribute their own record of military service. Using the website as a guide, this workshop will walk participants through the kinds of documents, photographs, letters and diaries, memorabilia, and other artifacts that constitute the archival record of a veteran’s service and how it can be collected or recovered. We will discuss how best to preserve papers and artifacts, and look at the questions a museum or library would ask before accepting a collection. References will be available for those interested in sharing any findings with their local military museum and other cultural and historical centers.
“I started learning about military history because of a curiosity about my father,” Bob French, board member of the Society explains. “Documents like discharge papers and old letters connect us to our past and gives us a glimpse of our own family history. There is a lot more in that paperwork than meets the eye.” French will also lead an oral history project that will interview veterans of color and their families that can be kept as family archives.
Most of us know a veteran – a grandfather, a mother, a son, or a niece. Learn how to preserve their stories, and acknowledge their service. For more information on the program or to reserve a seat, please contact the New Bedford Historical Society at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (508) 979-8828.
Tours to be offered at three historic buildings
During the Charles W. Morgan Homecoming, three of the city’s oldest historic buildings will be open to the public.
From 1 to 4 p.m. on July 3, volunteer members of each organization will be offering free tours of the Nathan and Polly Johnson House, the Spring Street Friends Meeting andThe First Unitarian Church in New Bedford, according to a press release.
The Nathan and Polly Johnson House at 21 Seventh St. was a destination on the Underground Railroad that became “the first free home of Frederick Douglass” when he and his wife, Anna Murray, a free woman, arrived in New Bedford in September 1838. The Johnson house now belongs to the New Bedford Historical Society, which was founded to preserve and celebrate the history and culture of the city’s diverse people of color.
Nathan and Polly Johnson were free African Americans who worked as live-in cooks and caterers for Charles W. Morgan and his family. After the Johnsons moved to 21 Seventh St., they sheltered fugitives from slavery and helped them find employment and lodgings of their own. Polly’s delicious cakes and candies made with “free labor sugar” were very popular with New Bedfordites, many of whom were opposed to slavery and protective of both free and self-emancipated persons.
New Bedford offered social and economic opportunity to ambitious African Americans in the whaling industry and in professions whose practitioners offered apprenticeships to conscientious workers. Frederick Douglass started out doing menial jobs such as shoveling coal for Unitarian minister Ephraim Peabody and subsequently became a lay preacher at one of the city’s African churches. Douglass also sold subscriptions to William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery newspaper The Liberator before he was hired as a paid lecturer for the Massachusetts Antislavery Society.
Diagonally across the street from the Johnson House is the Spring Street Friends Meeting House (No. 83). Built of brick in 1828, it replaced the old wooden Meeting House at 17-19 Spring St. and is still the city’s gathering place for Quakers, who were – and still are – staunch foes of slavery, war and all forms of oppression and injustice.
When a schism divided the New Bedford Friends during the 1820s, many Quakers – birth-right Quaker Charles W. Morgan included – joined The First Congregational Society (Unitarian) whose wooden building later became Liberty Hall. Thanks to Morgan and other wealthy members of the Unitarian Society, the impressive stone building housing the First Unitarian Church in New Bedford at Union and County streets opened for worship in 1838.
Visiting the Nathan and Polly House, the Spring Street Friends Meeting, andThe First Unitarian Church in New Bedford July 3 will inspire you to learn, imagine and experience the city’s illustrious history in places where that history was made.
Nathan and Polly Johnson were free African Americans who worked as live-in cooks and caterers for Charles W. Morgan and his family.
AAA Southern New England
February 2014 / In Your Backyard
By Poornima Apte
Visitors to New Bedford, Mass., might give the Frederick Douglass monument a passing glance, but the city’s vibrant history actually includes its role as a major hub on the Underground Railroad.
Frederick and Anna Douglass, a newly married couple at the time, came to New Beadford in September 1838. “The Nathan and Polly Johnson House was Douglass’ first home in freedom after his escape from the Wye Plantation in Maryland,” said Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society.
The home is part of the city’s Black History Trail; other highlights include the Lewis Temple Statue, Sgt. William Carney Memorial Homestead and Paul Cuffe Park. “The Black History Trail includes about 24 stops of importance to the history of African-Americans and Cape Verdeans in New Bedford,” Blake said.
Underground Railroad tours are held on a regular basis. Every February, the society hosts a Frederick Douglass Community Read-a-Thon, which is a continuous reading of “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Written by Himself.” Selections of the book are given out to readers, and anyone can participate; this year’s reading is scheduled for Feb. 9.
Blake encourages the public to learn more about the rich history of the city. “New Bedford was well-known for creating a welcoming environment and protecting freedom seekers. The city had a large free African-American population that was actively involved in the abolition movement and the activities around the country to end enslavement,” Blake said. “Additionally, the city had a number of Quaker merchants who believed that enslavement was a sin and organized antislavery organizations.” New Bedford Historical Society, 21 Seventh St., New Bedford: www.nbhistoricalsociety.org, 508-979-8828. To read more about other educational attractions, click here.
Frederick Douglass will soon be getting his due in the city’s public school curriculum.
Beginning next year, students in Grades 8-10 will study the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” the autobiography written by the then-young future abolitionist who arrived in New Bedford in 1838.
Students in the middle and high school grades will also read Douglass’ “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” — one of the renowned former-slave-turned-abolitionist’s most admired speeches. read full story