Confectioner and abolitionist Polly Johnson (1784-1871) specialized in sweets and provided safe lodging to freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad at her 21 Seventh Street home in New Bedford. She and her husband Nathan helped several formerly enslaved people on their journeys to freedom, including renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna. As a businesswoman with confectionery and catering businesses, Polly worked hard so that freedom seekers could find “sweet freedom” in New Bedford.
Polly’s early wages as a domestic worker were likely used toward the purchase of four properties on Seventh and Spring Streets, including her and Nathan’s confectionery and catering business. By 1836, New Bedford’s wealthy families regularly purchased Polly’s confections and cakes for parties and weddings. Her confectionery shop at 23 Seventh Street sold such items as ginger snaps, candy sticks, Jackson Balls, John Brown’s Bullets, and spruce gum. Polly specialized in candy, cakes, and ice cream. In 1844, the abolitionist Caroline Weston, then teaching in New Bedford, tried to persuade her cousin, the antislavery orator Wendell Phillips, to speak in the city by promising that “Polly Johnson shall freeze her best ice & ice her best cakes'' if he came. Ever conscious of social justice, Polly’s confectionery shop sold “free labor candy” made from sugar grown on sugar plantations that employed free workers instead of the enslaved.
In 1849, Nathan left New Bedford for the California Gold Rush leaving the properties, valued at more than half a million dollars today, in Polly’s name. Polly ran the business by herself until her death in 1871. Nathan never returned during those 22 years. Polly used her work ethic and business sense to continue the confectionery, paying off her home’s loan, having an addition made to the home, and furthering her abolitionist efforts. Polly was well-read on the social issues of the time and regularly attended antislavery meetings. She provided safe lodging to several other freedom seekers while Nathan was away. New Bedford was a welcoming place for freedom seekers due in part to its tolerance of diversity and a spirit of equality in its maritime trades. It is estimated that during the 1850s, the population of black freedom seekers in New Bedford ranged from 300 to 700.
Polly was well known not only for her cakes and sweets, but also for the care she and Nathan provided to freedom seekers along the Underground Railroad. People arrived in New Bedford looking for the home of the Johnsons. A passionate abolitionist and a successful businesswoman, Polly helped New Bedford become known as a city of tolerance and diversity. She stands as an inspiration for current generations who seek to affect change for a cause important to them.