NEW BEDFORD (WBSM) — New Bedford’s Abolition Row Park – a park highlighting 19th century anti-slavery advocates who lived in the city – was officially opened on Friday.

Members of the New Bedford Historical Society, Union Baptist Church, the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, elected officials and residents gathered at the intersection of Seventh and Spring Street to celebrate the park's opening.

The Historical Society sought to turn an old lot that sat across from the Nathan and Polly Johnson house into an area honoring abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William and Amelia Piper.

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A special statue of Douglass was unveiled at the event, sculpted by artist Richard Blake.

The statue depicts Douglass sitting with a pensive complexion on a stack of rope holding a cane in his right hand. The rope represents industries of New Bedford he worked at as a free man in 1838. The cane is Abraham Lincoln’s, whose wife gave Douglass the cane after he was assassinated.

Blake said he made Douglass deep in thought to represent his feelings after escaping Maryland and becoming a free man by escaping to New Bedford.

“The ropes represent the industry in New Bedford,” Blake said. “As he contemplates his future, he realizes for the first time, he's a free man.”

The ceremony featured performances from the New Bedford Symphony String Trio, Wheaton College Assistant Professor of Music Ethan Wood, and a rendition of “Steal Away” sung by Phillip Lima.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell remarked how big the crowd was for the event, and praised members of the Historical Society for its ambition to turn the dilapidated lot into a historic landmark.

“This facet of New Bedford’s history has not been given its due,” Mitchell said. “This is where Frederick Douglass became the Frederick Douglass known to history.”

State Rep. Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford) said the park was inspiring and reflected the spirit of New Bedford.

He said the city’s diversity is one of its biggest strengths and that it is still welcoming people to begin a new life, just like Douglass.

“This is a reflection of the city today,” Cabral said. “By looking out today, you can see New Bedford.”

Despite the jovial mood at the event, there was also a moment of reflection about current legislation in states that banned books about slavery and racism in schools and libraries.

New Bedford social justice activist and former school principal Dawn Blake Souza said the laws being proposed and passed were against the First Amendment and argued for more people to speak out against these new laws.

“I am very concerned about it,” she said. “That’s not what this country is about and we need to do everything we can to prevent it from happening.”

New Bedford Historical Society President Lee Blake said it is the mission of the organization to teach everyone about the history of African Americans in the city and the country.

The best way to do that, she said, is to open more areas like Abolition Row Park and encourage children and adults to read and learn more about the history.

“Abolition Park Row celebrates the New Bedford Black and white abolitionists of the 19th century,” Blake said. “We are committed to teach the truth and tell the stories of the men and women who built this city and this country.”

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