Black History Month
This Black History Month, United Way of Greater New Bedford is releasing an educational series highlighting some of Greater New Bedford’s Black, African-American, and Cape Verdean leaders. Through their activism and commitment to breaking barriers, they made our community a better place to live and work. We hope to encourage a greater understanding of our history through this series and contribute to an equitable representation of our POC community. Thank you for joining us!
Alfred J. Gomes was born on June 14, 1897 in Cape Verde and came to New Bedford at the age of seven. After completing his High School education at New Bedford Public Schools, he worked and financed his own college education and graduated from Boston University Law School in 1923, a time when few Cape Verdeans completed elementary school. Returning to New Bedford after graduation, he became one of the city’s most important civic and community leaders. He is remembered for his work as an attorney, activist, fundraiser, and philanthropist. Learn more.
Margery “Ruby” Dottin was born on November 17, 1922, in Cambridge, MA and received a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University. An advocate for education equality, Dottin became the first person of color to serve on the New Bedford School Committee in 1976. She also directed the Upward Bound Program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where she was also was awarded an honorary doctoral degree. She served as the Deputy Director for ONBOARD and was involved with organizations such as the NAACP, the New Bedford Historical Society, the Julio J. Alves Scholarship Committee, the League of Women Voters, the American Red Cross and the YWCA, where she served as assistant treasurer. Learn more.
Born in New Bedford, Thomas Lopes was a graduate of New Bedford High School, continuing his education at the University of Bridgeport, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1974, Tom was elected the first American of Cape Verdean descent in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he went on to serve two terms. Lopes also published the Cape Verdean News. He is remembered for his generous volunteer involvement, most notably serving with the Board of the Plymouth Bay Girl Scout Council, Moby Dick Scout Council, Child and Family Services, Junior Achievement, Kiwanis Club, Boy’s and Girl’s Club of New Bedford and the YMCA of New Bedford. Lopes was a champion of United Way of GNB’s Community Building Mini-Grant program, and used grant funding to create change throughout New Bedford. Learn more.
Mary S. Barros was born in New Bedford on December 26, 1923. A dedicated community activist, she served as a leader in educational advocacy. After retiring from her factory job of 31 years, she was employed by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. Barros directed ONBOARD, the local anti-poverty agency, helped found the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, and worked with the New Bedford Women’s Center and the NAACP. Barros served two terms as City Councilor of Ward 4 and was also a State Committee Representative to the Democratic State Party Convention. The Mary S. Barros Educational Center is now named after her. Learn more.
John “Joli” Gonsalves was born in 1925 and was a musician, folklorist, and community activist. He served in World War II and soon after enrolled in the Arlington Academy of Music. He then moved to New York and opened a publishing company, writing musical arrangements for popular singers. In 1966, he toured 14 countries in Africa with the Leonard DePaur Infantry Chorus. After his return to New Bedford, Joli founded a record company, became Director of Community Involvement for Model Cities, and produced the first Cape Verdean television program on Channel 6. As a Notary Public, he assisted many immigrants with naturalization processes. Following his mission of preserving and celebrating Cape Verdean culture, he founded the Cape Verdean Cultural Center, which now stores historical resources for students and historians. Learn more.
Elizabeth Carter Brooks was born in New Bedford in 1867 to formerly enslaved parents and attended New Bedford schools, taking up interest in architecture. Brook’s first teaching job took her to Brooklyn where she helped organize colored women’s clubs and, in 1896, she became the 4th president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. After returning to New Bedford, she was the first African American woman hired as a public school teacher in the city, where she taught for 25 years. Besides working with the young, she had a lifelong concern for the elderly. Making use of her many skills, including that of real estate developer, she founded the New Bedford Home for the Aged and designed the group’s permanent home on Chancery Street, which opened in 1908. Learn more.
Paul Cuffe was born in 1759 and rose to prominence as a Black, biracial philanthropist, abolitionist, businessman, and more. Born in Cuttyhunk, MA, Cuffe lived Westport for most of his life. Cuffe’s efforts in abolition also helped secure the Black vote in Massachusetts in 1783. He became so successful in whaling and trading, having owned shares in up to ten ships, that he is regarded as one of the wealthiest men in the world at that time. He used his wealth to support a local hospital, an integrated school and many people during times of struggle regardless of their ethnic or racial background. Learn more.
Originally George Neves Leitão, George N. Leighton was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts on October 22, 1912. His name was anglicized to Leighton when a teacher told him it was too challenging to pronounce. He attended Howard University and Harvard Law School until he was called to serve in World War II, where he earned the rank of Captain. After the war he returned to Harvard Law School and earned his Bachelor of Laws. Leighton’s legal cases often addressed racial justice and segregation. In 1969, Leighton was assigned to sit as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Illinois’ First District. After six years, President Gerald Ford nominated Leighton to serve as a U.S. District Court judge. He also served as a member of the Chicago NAACP, later becoming president of the branch. Appointed Assistant Attorney General of Illinois in 1949, Leighton served two years in this post. In 1951, he co-founded one of the largest predominately African American law firms in the country. Leighton lived to be 105, only retiring from Law at age 99. Learn more.
Lewis Temple was a blacksmith, inventor, businessman, and abolitionist born in 1800 to enslaved parents in Richmond, Virginia. He arrived in New Bedford in 1829 and set up shop as a waterfront blacksmith. In 1834 he was elected vice president of New Bedford Union Society, the village’s first antislavery society and one of the black auxiliaries to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. An innovator, he revolutionized the whaling industry with his invention of a whaling harpoon, known as “Temple’s Toggle” and “Temple’s Iron” that became the standard harpoon of the whaling industry in the middle of the 19th century. In 1987, a memorial statue was erected in front of New Bedford’s Free Public Library Downtown to commemorate his contributions in revolutionizing the whaling industry. Learn more.
Abolitionists Nathan and Mary “Polly” Johnson married in 1819, and by the 1850’s, had become one of the wealthiest African-Americans households in the city of New Bedford. With catering help from Nathan, wages from Polly’s successful confectionary business – specializing in candy, cakes, and ice cream – went to the purchasing of several properties. At their home on 21 Seventh Street in New Bedford, the Johnsons welcomed fugitives and abolitionists Frederick and Anna Douglass, where the couple and their children lived for 5 years. Polly was well-read and conscious of social justice, selling “free labor candy” at her shop made with sugar purchased from anti-slavery sugar cane plantations that employed free laborers. Later, when Nathan’s activism in the abolitionist cause required him to move west, Polly was able to support herself and their children through her business in New Bedford. Learn more.
The powerful orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was born in 1818 and escaped slavery in 1838, travelling to various locations through the Underground Railroad and settling in New Bedford with his wife, Anna Murray, at the home of Nathan and Polly Johnson. Frederick Douglass had much success as a speaker and activist particularly because of his firsthand experience being enslaved. He was able to bring a human face to the widely accepted institution of slavery, and launched a forceful attack in writing and in speech the continuation of the cruel practice. His success as a writer supported him financially, earning the funds to legally buy his freedom in 1845. In that year, he also travelled abroad, speaking and living in Ireland until his return in 1847. Learn more.
Anna Murray was born in 1813 and made her living as a domestic worker, saving up until she was able to aid her husband, then named Fred Bailey, by paying for his train ticket and disguise to travel north. She followed him to New York City, where they were married by a prominent black minister. They adopted the surname Douglass when they moved in with abolitionists Nathan and Polly Johnson in New Bedford. Although she was mostly illiterate, he also took an active role in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and later prevailed upon her husband to train their sons as typesetters for his abolitionist newspaper, North Star. Anna Douglass created a steady income as a launderess and cobbler, raised her and Frederick’s five children, and served as an agent for change while her husband toured for the abolition speaking circuit. Learn more.
George Oliver Henderson Jr. was born in New Bedford in 1923. After graduating from the New Bedford Vocational School, he was disappointed by the lack of opportunities locally for Black men in engineering. Desiring to support the war effort, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in October of 1942. At the end of World War II, he attended the Milwaukee School of Engineering from 1946 to 1950, and he was described as a brilliant student. He then attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison where he graduated with a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering in 1951. He later attended Columbia University earning an MBA. He moved to D.C. and was hired by NASA was the Leader Guidance and Navigation team for the Apollo Lunar Module. He was one of two African-Americans who were Technical Leads on the Grumman Lunar Module, the other being Oswald “Ozzie” S. Williams. He worked under Joe Gavin and Tom Kelly. His role in the Apollo project was significant, though he is not widely known.