More research needed

In tonight’s class for the Underground Railroad Tour Guide training at the New Bedford Historical Society, our teacher Joan Beauboin turned to me and said, “Reverent Harper [I can’t get her to call me “Dan”], you’ll be interested to know that Reverend William Jackson was converted to Unitarianism when — what was her name, now, something Watkins Harper….”

Surprised, I said, “Frances Watkins Harper came to New Bedford?”

Frances Harper was a well-known African American woman who joined the Unitarian church in Philadelphia in 1870, having been attracted to Unitarianism by the many Unitarian abolitionists she had met. Rev. William Jackson was the African American minister of the Second and Salem Baptist churches in New Bedford, known as the fugitive slave’s churches.

“Indeed she did,” said Joan Beauboin. “And she managed to convince William Jackson that he was really a Unitarian.”

Still surprised, I said, “But which church did he join? He didn’t join First Unitarian, did he?” In the second half of the 19th C., the Unitarian church in New Bedford had many of the most powerful and influential and wealthy white New Bedfordites as members; it was very much a white church.

“Well, I don’t know if he actually joined the church,” she admitted. “Perhaps he just considered himself a Unitarian.”

I find it hard to believe that socially-conscious First Unitarian Church would have allowed an African American to rent a pew or otherwise become a formal member. But even if Rev. William Jackson wasn’t a member of First Unitarian, he would have been the most prominent person of color in 19th C. New Bedford to have called himself a Unitarian. This is definitely going to call for more research on my part….