SouthCoast civil rights trailblazers honored by local NAACP, Historical Society

SouthCoast civil rights leaders honored

March 21, 2015

Enola G. Aird , lawyer, activist mother and founder and president of Community Healing Network Inc. speaks at the NAACP Breakfast honoring the legacy of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. PHOTO BY DAVID W. OLIVEIRA/STANDARD-TIMES SPECIAL

Enola G. Aird , lawyer, activist mother and founder and president of Community Healing Network Inc. speaks at the NAACP Breakfast honoring the legacy of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. PHOTO BY DAVID W. OLIVEIRA/STANDARD-TIMES SPECIAL

NEW BEDFORD — The Waypoint Conference Center on the waterfront was full to capacity Saturday for a breakfast awards banquet by the local chapter of the NAACP and by the New Bedford Historical Society, with a sense of concern and urgency hanging over the proceedings.

This is the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and the estimated 125 people in attendance heard speakers implore them not to let up on the effort to secure and protect voting rights. They were also reminded that 30 states have taken some measure of legislation to roll back voting rights and civil rights in recent years.

The spate of recent shootings involving blacks and police officers also got frequent mention, usually in combination with other threats to civil rights and voting rights.

Dr. Bruce Rose, the interim president of the local NAACP, cautioned “constant vigilance over the civil rights we’ve gained.” He called the backsliding “regressive elements” that threaten to undo much of the progress of the last half century.

The speeches, prayers and singing of “We Shall Overcome” were accompanied by awards to five residents who have done exemplary work on civil rights in SouthCoast.

Many speakers struck the same themes: First, that it’s critical that people register to vote and then actually vote; and second, that they join or rejoin the NAACP, to reestablish strength in numbers when it comes to getting the attention of elected officials.

The local NAACP chapter is part of the New England Area Conference, whose president, Juan Cofield, said, “If we forfeit our right to vote, we forfeit our right to complain,” which brought loud applause.

The keynote speaker was Enola G. Aird, a lawyer from Connecticut who has established the Community Healing Network, dedicated to teaching individuals to reject centuries of lies about themselves and “sign their own emancipation proclamation.”

She said blacks “have to free themselves of a false sense of inferiority,” and her goal is to have the personal emancipation spread across the country in about five years. Right now, she said, “racism has this country and the world firmly in its grasp.”

Other speakers included Mayor Jon Mitchell, who observed that “the Voting Rights Act didn’t get at the heart of endemic racism.” But on the positive side, he said, many cities have elected black mayors, which is something of a political resurgence.

Bristol District Attorney Thomas Quinn III told the gathering of how he first witnessed racism, and people fighting back against it, at age 8 during the 1968 election year in which Alabama Gov. George Wallace was a candidate making an appearance at Lincoln Park in Dartmouth.

Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society, introduced the speakers and announced that a mural will soon be painted downtown to commemorate the famed all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first to be called up in the Civil War.

Follow Steve Urbon on Twitter @SteveUrbonSCT. 

54th Regiment mural takes its place among city’s historical offerings

By Steve Urbon Jul 22, 2015 at 12:19 PM



NEW BEDFORD — The famed African-American Massachusetts 54th Regiment is more fully rooted in the narrative of New Bedford’s storied past, thanks to a mural depicting the regiment’s recruiting days in the Civil War. About 200 people turned out Saturday in the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Plaza downtown to celebrate the latest addition to New Bedford’s cultural and historical offerings. The guest of honor and keynote speaker was former National Park Service Director Robert Stanton, the first African-American to head the agency. Stanton gave a shout-out to Jared Bader of Philadelphia, the young artist who was commissioned to create the mural. “It’s evident that you’re filled with the spirit of the 54th,” Stanton said. “I applaud you.”

The mural occupies the entire side of the building that houses Freestone’s Restaurant on William Street. It has transformed a pale beige blank space with an image that’s a riot of color, partly to compensate for fading on the west-facing wall. The mural, which went up in a little over a week, was not painted on the wall. Rather, it was painted in Bader’s studio on cloth panels and hung much like wallpaper, with seams between the 30 panels that are barely visible.

The $20,000 cost of the project was raised through persistent fund-raising — led by Margaret “MarDee” Xifaras, of the Whaling History Alliance, and the president of the New Bedford Historical Society, Lee Blake. The mural project which took three years from concept to implementation was a collaboration between the New Bedford Historical Society, the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the University of MA CVPA, the Whaling History Alliance and the New Bedford Art Museum. The speakers

Saturday often struck the same themes: that of the need for constant struggle to reach the state of a “United People of America,” as Stanton put it. He asked his audience to ask themselves, “What am I doing to foster justice, equality and dignity?” “It requires work, diligence and consistency,” he said.

Ron Armstead, director of the Veterans Brain Trust within the Congressional Black Caucus, told of the worry he feels when he sees it take a century or more before black war heroes are honored as such by their government. An example is Sgt. William Carney of the 54th, who wasn’t awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor until 1903 for his 1863 valor in the Civil War’s Battle of Fort Wagner, valiantly fought but unfortunately lost by the 54th as depicted in the movie “Glory.”

U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., marveled at how Bader managed to incorporate two windows in the middle of the wall into the mural. He used the window as a metaphor for a portal through which one could climb and pursue the goals of gender and racial equality.

Mayor Jon Mitchell remarked that the mural is “eye-popping” with a serious “wow factor.” But he added that there is “still room for contemplation.”

Joshua Boles, chief of interpretation and education for the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, praised the beauty of the mural and observed that tourists are coming across it and hitting their brakes, almost causing accidents because it is so eye-catching. He and others also stressed how important it is that young people appreciate their heritage and seek to teach and learn about it.

Other speakers included master of ceremonies Carl Cruz, City Councilor Dana Ribeiro, Adrian Tio, dean of the UMass Dartmouth Center for Visual and Performing Arts, Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society and manager of the project and Noelle Foye, director of the New Bedford Art Museum.

Follow Steve Urbon on Twitter @SteveUrbonSCT

Cape Verdeans Recount Ancestor’s Journey to the U.S.

With grateful hearts, Cape Verdeans recount ancestors’ journey to U.S.


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?'”

CPA Act at Annual Meeting October 8

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 as seating is limited.

The Veteran’s Legacy

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 or call (508) 979-8828.

Johnson House Tours, July 3, 2014

Tours to be offered at three historic buildings

uring 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.

City was bastion for abolitionism

AAA Southern New England
February 2014 / In Your Backyard
By Poornima Apte

AAA-tourgoersVisitors 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:, 508-979-8828. To read more about other educational attractions, click here.