Whaling Museum announces groundbreaking Sailing to Freedom exhibition

The New Bedford Whaling Museum today announced a groundbreaking new exhibition chronicling the experiences of enslaved persons who made their way to freedom using coastal water routes along the Atlantic seaboard, opening in the Centre Street Gallery at the Whaling Museum beginning May 20, 2022.

Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground explores stories of the Underground Railroad through the lens of American maritime labor and industries, and seeks to expand historical understanding of how freedom was achieved by sea for many African Americans. It is an extension of the 2021 publication of the same title, edited by Timothy Walker and released by UMass Press.

“Stories of the Underground Railroad are among the most powerful and significant narratives in American history,” said Michael Dyer, Curator for Maritime History at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “As our country undergoes a critical conversation about our history and the lens through which we frame it, this exhibition will serve as an important learning tool to broaden societal understanding of the many paths to freedom.”

Research undertaken for this exhibition demonstrates that a far larger number of enslaved persons escaped bondage by sea than previously thought, particularly those fleeing from coastal areas in the Deep South where slaves were commonly employed in diverse maritime industries.

“While scholarship on the Underground Railroad has focused almost exclusively on overland escape routes from the South, the ocean was the only viable path to liberation for thousands of enslaved people, particularly from the coastal deep South,” said Timothy Walker, Guest Curator and editor of Sailing to Freedom. “I am thrilled to see this exhibition come to the New Bedford Whaling Museum to share these incredible stories of resilience, ingenuity, and triumph.”

The museum will host a special exhibition viewing and reception followed by an hour-long lecture titled “The Overseas Freeway: Maritime Workers and Fugitives in the Struggle Against Slavery” on Thursday, May 19, 2022 at 7:00 p.m. The lecture will be presented by Dr. Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh. The lecture will be presented both in-person and in a virtual format. Pre-registration is required and may be done through the New Bedford Whaling Museum website.

This program is made possible through a special collaboration by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Historical Society, utilizing a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the National Writing Project, as well as funding from the following institutions: the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, the BayCoast Bank Foundation, the Southcoast Health Foundation, and the law firm of Lang, Xifaras, and Bullard. For more information on the exhibition and the surrounding events, please visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum website.



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