Liberty Bell Plaque (New Bedford Black History Trail)
The Liberty Bell Plaque marks the site of where New Bedford’s Liberty Bell used to ring, at the old Liberty Hall. The bell was used to warn fugitive slaves that U.S. Marshalls were on their way. The bell didn’t survive the fire that also destroyed the building in 1854. A piece of it was kept and inserted into the bottom of the plaque as a reminder of what the citizens of New Bedford did to resist the slave trade in America.
Backstory and Context
The Liberty Bell Plaque is also a site on the New Bedford Historical Society’s Black History Trail. The bell was first installed at Liberty Hall in the 1790s. One of the largest subscribers to the bell’s financing campaign was a man named Aaron Childs. Childs was the only black man listed as a householder in New Bedford’s first federal census.
The Fugitive Slave Act was passed in September 1850. This was the second Fugitive Slave Act – the first was passed in 1793 but met with such widespread resistance that later act was passed years later to uphold and improve it. The Act gave the U.S. Marshals authority to travel north in search of escaped slaves. The slaves could legally be apprehended and returned to their owners in the South.
A group of local abolitionists defied the law by ringing the “Liberty Bell” on top of Liberty Hall, at the corner of Purchase and William Streets in New Bedford. They rang the bell to warn any fugitive slaves that the marshals were descending on the area so that they could hide.
Liberty Hall was destroyed by fire in November 1854. Several other nearby businesses also burned. The fire started in the hall because someone had left a lamp burning overnight. The heat of the fire melted the Liberty Bell. A fragment of the bell was inserted into the bottom of the plaque that visitors can see today. The rest of the melted object was reshaped into tiny bells and sold as souvenirs. The hall was eventually rebuilt.
The plaque, which is situated on the corner of a commercial building now used as a bank, reads:
"On this site the former meeting house of the First Congregational and Unitarian societies was erected - 1795-97
These buildings were converted into Liberty Hall - 1839
Original Liberty Hall burned and rebuilt - 1854
Merchant National Bank's second bank building erected - 1893
This building erected 1914
News of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law was brought from Boston in 1851 by an express messenger who rode all night and the bell from the old hall was wrung to give warning to fugitive slaves that U.S. Marshals were coming.
The bell was melted in the fire of 1854 and a fragment is inserted into this tablet.”
At the bottom of the plaque, the piece of the melted bell is mounted to the center, surrounded by pictures of bells with draping cords on either side of it. It is a stoic reminder of the risks that the citizens of New Bedford took to guarantee the freedom of their African-Americans friends.
Liberty Hall Bell Plaque - New Bedford, MA. Waymarking. http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM9G9X_Liberty_Hall_Bell_Plaque_New_Bedford_MA. Posted by: NorStar
Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Your View: New Bedford’s human rights legacy and the current crisis. SouthCoast Today. February 05, 2017. Accessed August 05, 2017. http://www.southcoasttoday.com/opinion/20170205/your-view-new-bedfords-human-rights-legacy-and-curre....
New Bedford Black History Trail. New Bedford Historical Society. Accessed August 05, 2017. http://nbhistoricalsociety.org/historic-trails/.
Fugitive Slave Acts. History. Accessed August 05, 2017. http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fugitive-slave-acts.