Filed Under Abolition

Provider of Sweet Freedom

Mary J. "Polly" Johnson

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.

Video

Frederick Douglass Finds Freedom in New Bedford This clip from PBS’s American Experience tells how Frederick and Anna Douglass came to New Bedford to live as free people. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMd5G4RpFLk Date: 01/08/13

Audio

One Square Mile: New Bedford’s Abolition Row In this Public's Radio story, Lee Blake, the president of the New Bedford Historical Society, is interviewed about New Bedford’s prominent role in the abolitionist movement in the mid-18th century. Source: https://thepublicsradio.org/episode/one-square-mile-new-bedford-s-abolition-row Creator: Chuck Hinman Date: February 6, 2018

Images

Polly Johnson and The Nathan and Polly Johnson House, 21 Seventh St., New Bedford
Polly Johnson and The Nathan and Polly Johnson House, 21 Seventh St., New Bedford Silhouette of Mary J. “Polly” Johnson (1784-1871) and present-day photo of the house she and her husband lived in for many years. This house was one of four properties they owned on Seventh St. The oldest part of the building dates to the 1820s. Today the house is the headquarters of the New Bedford Historical Society and is a National Historic Landmark. Source: Silhouette of Mary J. “Polly” Johnson, New Bedford Historical Society. Photo of Johnson House, New Bedford Whaling Museum Creator: Composite image by New Bedford Whaling Museum
Advertisement for the Johnson confectionery business
Advertisement for the Johnson confectionery business This advertisement for the Johnson confectionery business showcases the sweet treats New Bedford residents could enjoy from the Seventh Street storefront. Source: New Bedford Historical Society

Location

21 Seventh St. New Bedford, MA 02740 | Nathan and Polly Johnson House

Metadata

Tom Begley and Ann O’Leary, “Provider of Sweet Freedom,” Rhode Tour, accessed February 24, 2024, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/393.