Workshop for School Teachers
Please note that we are offering Sailing to Freedom as an in-person program for 2022. We are actively monitoring the latest COVID protocols and guidance and our COVID-related policies for the program will reflect state and local mandates and ordinances. Consequently, the daily schedule may change due to state or local ordinances, federal regulations, or other factors. Nonetheless, we are confident that we can provide a safe and engaging program for this year’s participants.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities
Join eminent historians, literary scholars, design and architectural historians, and archivists for a week-long NEH “Landmarks of American History and Culture” workshop that will give you new insights into the compelling story of the Underground Railroad. Sailing to Freedom: New Bedford and the Underground Railroad, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, will focus on the national influence of New Bedford, Massachusetts within the nineteenth-century Abolitionist movement, the town’s unique role in the Underground Railroad, the development of its dynamic and prosperous African-American community, and its maritime history and culture.
K-12 teachers, librarians, and administrators are invited to apply to participate in our Landmarks in American History and Culture teacher workshops directed by the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth and held downtown in the historic seaport of New Bedford. The workshops provide teachers with the opportunity to engage in intensive study and discussion of fundamental issues and events in our national past relating to the Underground Railroad, New Bedford’s role in the Underground Railroad and its under-appreciated maritime aspects. We offer firsthand experiences in the interpretation of significant historical and cultural sites through discussions, lectures, tours, site visits, archival and other primary-source evidence. We encourage you to apply.
The Sailing to Freedom Workshop
Although New Bedford is best known as having been America’s preeminent whaling port – in the 1830s it became the richest whaling city in the world – it is also a lens through which the most significant issues facing the New Republic and Antebellum America can be studied and understood. The people of early nineteenth-century New Bedford were confronted daily with the contradictory values that resided at the core of the nation’s freedom-loving, slave-holding identity. Americans at this time had to decide whether the new experimental American Republic would live up to its high-minded ideals embodied in Revolutionary rhetoric that “all men are created equal” and have a natural right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
With New Bedford as our backdrop, “Sailing to Freedom” will focus new attention on the maritime dimension of the Underground Railroad, highlighting the underappreciated importance of seaways as pathways to freedom for fugitive slaves, especially those from coastal areas of the Deep South.
Dr. Walker’s new book is evidence that scholarship coordinated by this innovative workshop has changed the way some researchers conceive of how the Underground Railroad functioned, shifting part of the focus away from overland routes from interior regions that bordered the Free States, to waterborne escape strategies from the Virginia Chesapeake Bay area, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and the Gulf Coast.
New Bedford’s role in nineteenth-century American history is not limited to whaling. For many people—particularly escaped slaves, those “self-emancipated” men and women who found safe haven through the Underground Railroad—New Bedford was a port of entry and opportunity. New Bedford was a major waypoint in this clandestine system that moved enslaved persons from the South to freedom in the North. Former slaves frequently settled in New Bedford, becoming whalers or workers in the maritime trades. The city, therefore, provides a lens through which some of the most significant issues facing the New Republic and Antebellum America can be studied and understood.
New Bedford was a place where black and white Americans put their lives on the line toward establishing universal freedom through the Abolitionist movement, a movement that shook nineteenth-century America to its core. From its emergence, New Bedford’s African-American community took an active stand on Abolitionism in partnership with the city’s white residents. Together they provided shelter and work for fugitives, helped to secure the release of fraudulently enslaved Northern African-American seamen and worked diligently to end the South’s “peculiar institution”—slavery—which they saw as an immoral stain on the nation.
Frederick Douglass and New Bedford
Among the many fugitives who sought freedom from bondage in New Bedford was Frederick Douglass, who lived and worked in the city for five years before becoming a leading antislavery orator and author. Douglass wrote that New Bedford’s people of color were “much more spirited than I had supposed they would be,” with a “determination to protect each other from the blood-thirsty kidnapper [that is, bounty-hunters looking for escaped slaves], at all hazards.” Several buildings where Douglass lived and spoke publicly still stand;; they are part of New Bedford’s proud Abolitionist legacy.
Fugitives faced many challenges in their attempts to escape the South and their status as bondsmen and women. They often had to travel vast distances through unfamiliar terrain, relying on the kindness of strangers who formed the network known as the Underground Railroad. Often, assistance came from members of the Society of Friends, better known as Quakers. Even before the American Revolution, the Quakers had become the most outspoken anti-slavery religious group in Britain and North America. Because whaling was typically an industry dominated by Quakers, who abhorred violence in any form and held that slaveholding was antithetical to piety, New Bedford became a hotbed for Abolitionists in the antebellum north. For runaway slaves from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, New Bedford was a safe haven, glowing as a beacon of hope at the end of the Underground Railroad.