New Bedford’s Johnson House is Historic Treasure Trove

NEW BEDFORD — It has been almost 175 years since abolitionist Frederick Douglass arrived at 21 Seventh St. in 1838, but thanks to a renovation project by the New Bedford Historical Society, visitors will soon have a better idea of where Douglass lived in his first months of freedom.

Standing in the kitchen of the Nathan and Polly Johnson House one recent afternoon, Historical Society president Lee Blake described how more than 800 pounds of wood were removed from the kitchen floor of the house to reveal the original wood floor.

“When you stand in this room, you can feel the essence of Frederick Douglass,” she said. “Just to know that Frederick Douglass walked through these doors, and that Douglass stood on these very floors,” she said, tapping her foot on the dark brown panels for emphasis.

Nathan and Polly Johnson, who were free blacks, were entrepreneurs in the mid-19th century, with Nathan owning three New Bedford properties and Polly running a confection and catering business out of the house. Both Johnsons were abolitionists and helped at least seven escaped slaves on their way to freedom, including Douglass, who stayed at the home for four months in 1838 before moving into his own New Bedford house with his wife, Anna.
The Johnson House had been an apartment house until 2000, when the Historical Society bought the house and began the restoration process.

“Back then, the downstairs had a lot of paneling on the wall that was from the 1950’s­ — it was 100 years off,” Historical Society member Jeanne Costa said.

The Historical Society tore down the panels, raised the ceilings to their original height and painted the walls of the home in historically accurate colors, which the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE) helped choose. The Society also replaced molding around the windows and wood flooring in the house’s foyer. All of the renovations were paid for through private funds received from the 1772 Foundation African American Historic Sites program, the Crapo Foundation, and the New York Community Trust.

Dismantling the paneling on the walls revealed a patch of original wallpaper from when the Johnsons lived there. It also revealed the original door to the house and a previously unknown fireplace in the kitchen, where Polly Johnson would have done her cooking.

“This is the actual door Frederick Douglass would have used,” Blake said, explaining that in 1850, the Johnsons built an addition to their house which now faces the street. “And this is the fireplace where Polly would cook meals and prepare her famous candies and cakes”.

Costa said while Douglass is someone she hopes youths of color will be inspired to learn more about as well as the other important historical figures of color in the city.

“Because of whaling, New Bedford really was a maritime hub, so it was a logical stop for those fleeing the tyranny of slavery in the South,” she said. “And they were welcomed in, by the Johnsons and the community – both black and white. Our schools were integrated in New Bedford when it was illegal in the South for people of color to read and write.”

Blake expects the renovations to be completed by this spring so the Historical Society can hold educational programing on New Bedford’s multi-cultural history and its push for social justice in what used to be the Johnson’s dining room.
“We don’t always teach about the impact that people of color had on our city’s history, but it’s important and gives us a sense of who we are as community members with pride in our city and our cultural heritage,” Blake said.