Category Archives: New Bedford, Mass.

Research into the first African American Unitarian minister

Sometimes when you’re doing research, you have to go back to primary sources. I’ve been researching Rev. William Jackson, an African American minister, who had charge of the Salem Baptist Church in New Bedford from 1858-1870. Jackson was an important figure in the history of African American antislavery activism here in New Bedford, which is why I first started paying attention to him. He was also the first known African American minister to proclaim himself a Unitarian to the American Unitarian Association (AUA), and today we would say that he was treated badly by the AUA. But just what do we mean when we say he was treated badly? Here’s what Mark Morrison-Reed says in his superb study Black Pioneers in a White Denomination:

Egbert Ethelred Brown wasn’t the first black minister to proclaim himself a Unitarian and suffer because of it. Our earliest opportunity to spread Unitarianism into the black community came in 1860 when a Rev. Mr. Jackson of New bedford presented himself to the Autumnal Convention of the American Unitarian Association and testified to his conversion to Unitarianism. He went on and “stated the needs of his church, and the Unitarians took a collection, which totaled $49. A few dollars were added to this amount and he was sent on his way.” Douglas Stange reports this happening in his book Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians, 1831-1860, and concludes, “No discussion, no welcome, no expression of praise and satisfaction was uttered, that the Unitarian gospel had reach the ‘colored’.” [Mark Morrison-Reed, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, 3rd ed., Boston: Skinner House, 1994, pp. 183-184.]

So I got Stange’s book. Morrison-Reed is quoting directly from Stange; that is to say, Morrison-Reed accepts Stange’s interpretations of the primary source materials which Stange consulted. This is perfectly adequate for Morrison-Reed’s purposes; Jackson is really a side issue for his book. But I wanted to read Stange, and here’s what he has to say about this event:

But what happened when a white church had the opportunity to wait upon a black [person]? This opportunity actually occurred at the Autumnal Convention in New Bedford in 1860. A Reverend Mr. Jackson, the “colored minister of New Bedford,” intruded upon the Convention to testify to his conversion to Unitarianism. Since he was perhaps the “only colored minister” (and indeed the first black Unitarian minister in America), he requested their kind and patient attention. After he had stated the needs of his church, the Unitarians took a collection, which totaled $49. A few dollars were added to this amount and Mr. Jackson was sent on his way. No discussion, no welcome, no expression of praise and satisfaction was uttered, that the Unitarian gospel had reached the “colored.” In truth, the antislavery forces had lost the battle, perhaps because many of them had never begun to wage it. [Douglas Stange, Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians, 1831-1860, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1977, pp. 226-227.]

But here again, Jackson is just a side issue, and Stange actually tells me very little about Jackson (and for what it’s worth, $49 would be about $1,100 in 2007 dollars). So I decided to go back to the primary source material. Stange cites the 20 October 1860 number of the Christian Inquirer, a Unitarian newspaper of the day. The first two pages of the 20 October 1860 issue are pretty much filled up by the long story on the Autumnal Convention. I read through most of it, to get a flavor of the convention. Jackson doesn’t appear until the last day of the three-day convention. To give you a flavor of what the convention was like, here’s what the Christian Inquirer says about the two speakers who precede Jackson, followed by the actual report of Jackson’s appearance:

Rev. Charles Lowe thought that we now had got upon something practical. We are in the way to do something for our [Unitarian] cause. We have made, he thought, a mistake hitherto in our methods of appeal. We have forgotten those among the people who could do but little, and resorted principally to the rich to obtain what we want. This is not the way other sects do, and it is not the way we ought to do. They collect from all, and even if the sums are small, these little rivulets swell the general stream, and a vast volume is poured forth at last. Let us ask all to give; the two mites are as acceptable as well as the rich men’s offerings.

Rev. Alfred P. Putnam, of Roxbury, thought that to do what is desirable we must cultivate the missionary spirit. Other Christian bodies had their monthly missionary meetings. They thus cultivated the spirit of that work. In the late missionary meetings in Boston, what was especially noteworthy was that the action of missions was reflex upon the churches themselves. We should gain a like good from the establishment of such monthly concerts for missions. By such a method of action an unwonted interest might be awakened over the entire Christian body.

Rev. Mr. Jackson, the colored minister of New Bedford, had been converted [to Unitarianism]. He was converted yesterday by the essay. He should preach the Broad Church. He had learned that the religion of Jesus was universal, and gave all the right and privilege of thinking for themselves. As he was perhaps the only colored Unitarian minister, he hoped they would hear from him patiently. He then presented the claims of his church, which was in debt, and desired that some aid might be afforded him to discharge this debt. After some further remarks, a contribution of $49 was taken up, to which more was afterwards added to lift the debt on Mr. Jackson’s church. [Christian Inquirer, 20 October 1860, p. 2.]

The irony is too much: they’re going on about “missionary” work, and then someone pops up to give them a chance to do “missionary” work in the African American community, and they completely drop the ball. So Stange’s interpretation is probably true, but a more nuanced interpretation seems possible.

Now for some background information that might lead to a more nuanced interpretation of the AUA’s treatment of the very first African American Unitarian minister, which I’ll include below the fold.

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Spring watch

Today, Memorial Day, is the unofficial first day of summer. We walked over to Fort Phoenix at about five o’clock this afternoon under a cloudless sky, with cool air and a brisk breeze from the northwest. There were a two or three dozen people fishing along the hurricane barrier. Three children in swim suits played along the small sandy beach between the hurricane barrier and the rocks at the base of Fort Phoenix. As usual in the New Bedford area, we saw skin colors from pale white (me) to quite dark, and everything in between; we heard at least three different languages. There were families with children, and groups of elders. It wasn’t crowded by any means, but there were more people walking around Fort Phoenix than I remember seeing before.

When we walk over to Fort Phoenix in the winter time, sometimes we’ll only see one or two other people — so even though the cool air and brisk breeze felt like late spring, it felt like summer with all those people walking around outdoors. I won’t say that spring is over yet, but it’s getting close.


I just got back from visiting a friend in Washington, D.C. Flowers are in bloom everywhere in D.C., it was warm, and the air was full of pollen. Yet I had relatively few problems with allergies.

Then I got back to New Bedford, where it is cool, and not so many things are in bloom. And my allergies got much worse. My allergies have never been worse than while living in New Bedford. I’ve decided that my body does not like the damp, moist climate that you get living right next to the ocean; nor does it like the inevitable mold that you get in the old buildings that make up New Bedford.

I will miss many things about New Bedford when we leave here at the end of July, but I will not miss the allergens.

A UU sculptor

James C. Toatley (1941-1986) was a sculptor who lived and worked in New Bedford. Toatley had a number of exhibitions and commissions in his short career. The MBTA commissioned a work by Toatley, and his sculpture “Faces in a Crowd” is on display at the Jackson Square Station on the Orange Line in Boston. His sculpture has been exhibited at the New Bedford Art Museum, the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. (1) The latter exhibit, a group show, was covered by the New York Times, and the Times writer called a sculpture by Toatley “the star of the show”:

“Have you seen ‘Lucy?’” one visitor asked her companion. “Lucy” (1976) is James Toatley’s 191/2 inch bronze sculpture that is endearing enough to make it the star of the show. Here is a robust woman, with no attempt by the artist to disguise her flaws, leaning over an imaginary fence as if carrying on an amiable chat with a neighbor. Her warmth and humanity jump out at the viewer. (2)

Toatley is best known for his sculpture of Lewis Temple, the inventor of the toggle harpoon, a life-size sculpture which presently stands on the lawn of the downtown branch of the New Bedford Public Library. In the sculpture, Lewis Temple is bending forward slightly and looking at a harpoon that he has obviously just been working on; his expression is intent, and quietly triumphant. In this sculpture, Toatley captures a moment of creative success. Toatley also acknowledges the class and race of his subject: Temple wears a working-man’s apron, and he is clearly African American. Thus, the sculpture is more than a simple monument to an African American inventor; it also shows us that genius and inspiration are not restricted by the boundaries of race and class.

Early in his career, Toatley worked as a toy designer for Hasbro toy company of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. (3) He taught sculpture at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and was the only Black professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at the time. The affirmative action officer of the university at that time felt that Toatley was denied tenure due to racial prejudice, and fought the denial of tenure all the way to the university’s board, but was unsuccessful. (4) Toatley married Linda White, they had two children, Peter and Jameliah. He was a member of First Unitarian Church. He died at age 44 in 1986, just before he completed the Lewis Temple monument, and just as he was creating some of his best work.


1. African American Visual Artists Database, “Toatley, James C.,”, accessed 17 May 2009.
2. Allan R. Gold, “Boston Curator Defends Black Artists’ Exhibition, New York Times, Tuesday, 26 January 1988, p. C16.
3. Robert C. Hayden, African Americans and Cape Verdean Americans in New Bedford, Boston: Select Publications, 1993.
4. John E. Bush, letter to New Bedford Standard-Times, 4 August 1998.

Spring watch

Suddenly the trees are turning green. It started last week when the branches of the honey locusts that grow along our street began to look faintly green. Today, that faint green has become small leaves, and when the sun came out today for an hour or so, the honey locusts cast fairly good shade. The maples are a few days behind the honey locusts: I’m just beginning to be able to distinguish small leaves on their branches. Where there are trees here in the downtown, the faint green is softening a little of the harshness of the city.

But spring has its unpleasant moments too. The tree pollen has been bad this year, and with all the rain we’ve been having there is lots of mold, so my allergies are acting up and slowing me down.

Then there are the Herring Gulls nesting on the rooftops near us: they stay up late at night, and get up long before daybreak, and squabble and fight with other gulls, and make all manner of weird and unpleasant sounds. Right now, I can hear a gull outside the skylight moaning and crying and chattering, and he has been doing this for an hour now. Now I wish I hadn’t stopped to notice his noises, because I realize that I had effectively blocked him out of my consciousness before, and I have no desire to be aware of him now. Let me concentrate for a moment… there, he’s gone. What gull? I don’t hear any gulls.

Not this year

A couple of Devoted Readers have asked if the Herring Gulls are nesting on our rooftop again this year (some past posts on this topic are here, here, and here).

The answer is that no, the gulls are not nesting on our roof this year. The old nest that had been there for three years, re-used every year, is now completely gone, washed away by some of the heavy rain storms we had in late winter and early spring. There are gulls nesting on nearby rooftops, but not on our roof.

Spring watch

we both had to work today, but at sunset Carol and I took a walk along the waterfront. The air was warm, and a light breeze blew out of the southwest. We were standing out at the end of State Pier when I saw a swallow whiz by.

“Hey, that’s a swallow,” I said, interrupting something Carol was saying. “I think maybe it was a Barn Swallow.” I thought I had seen a yellowish color, but it might have been an effect of the setting sun.

“I told you, I saw lots of swallows flying around the bridge,” she said.

“You didn’t tell me that,” I said. Actually, she probably did tell me, but I wasn’t listening when she did. “You mean the swing span bridge over at Fish Island?”

“Yes,” she said.

We walked back along State Pier towards where the Cuttyhunk Ferry is berthed, when I saw the swallow again. It gave a funny buzzy sort of call. Then I saw it had a brown back and a dark throat. “Hey, that’s a Rough-winged Swallow,” I said. “And there’s another one.”

We watched the swallows as the swooped in among the fishing boats, obviously catching insects. Then they would sit for a moment — on the deck railing of a boat, on a rope tying one fishing boat to another, and, once, clinging to an outlet hole for a bilge pump on the side of a boat. Then they would be off flying again, doing amazing aerobatics as they swooped in among the boats and low to the water.

“Seeing the first swallow of spring is good luck,” I said. Actually I’d never heard of such a superstition before, but I said it anyway because seeing those swallows made me feel good.

Spring watch

My younger sister called me early this evening to say hello.

“I’m outside trying to find the robin that’s been singing,” I said. Abby knows that I’m a birder, so she did not find this statement to be unusual. “I keep hearing him in the mornings, and I want to see if I can see him. And there he is!”

I finally saw him high up in a tall tree’s branches, his red-orange breast lit up with the reddish light of the setting sun.

“Good Lord, I can hear him, too,” said Abby over the phone. “That’s one loud robin.”

“Yeah, he is,” I said. “He’s way up in this tree that’s right next to the Seaman’s Bethel.” Then to be polite, I deliberately walked away from the robin’s tree, and had a nice long chat with Abby. Tomorrow I’ll go back and see if I can see his mate, and their nest — surely there must be a nest. It would be quite something to find a robin’s nest in the middle of the city.

Spring watch

This viral infection has left me with little energy, and I’ve spent a good bit of time lying on the couch, looking out the windows, and listening to what’s going on around our building.

Several days ago, on one of those gray days we’ve been having, I swore I saw a brief flurry of snow. But it could have been a fever dream.

I’ve been watching the Red Maple across the street come into full bloom. By now it is covered with clusters of tiny little red flowers.

Very early one morning, I listened to a Mourning Dove calling from one of the trees across the street. But I don’t think I have heard him calling since. I’ve also heard House Finches calling most mornings; I suspect they favor the trees along the street where I often park my car, on which they often leave their droppings.

The Herring Gulls are nesting again on our rooftop, and on other nearby rooftops. I can hear our Herring Gulls stomping around up on our roof, and having fights, and squawling at each other. The variety of cries they can make is quite wonderful; even though each different cry is more discordant than the next, you have to be impressed by the inventiveness and loudness. I love to complain about the gulls nesting on our roof — that they are loud, combative, abrupt — but at the same time, when you have energy for nothing more than lying on your back and staring up through the skylights, what could be more entertaining than listening to gulls screeching and squabbling?