Boston radicals found a home in New Bedford

Black History

Ted Langston Chase | 2/7/2013, 12:03 p.m.

It was called “the New Bedford Annex for Boston Radicals,” and at the dawn of the 20th century, the well-appointed house on Arnold Street was one lively place.

Owned by African American lawyer Edwin Bush Jourdain, the house in the West End section of New Bedford saw the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter debating strategies that challenged the accommodationist policies of Booker T. Washington.

To this day, Jourdain’s descendants confirm that at one time their ancestor’s house had been frequented by the black intelligentsia, who exchanged ideas, rehearsed speeches and executed plans for curing the ills facing black Americans.

Jourdain was a prominent member of a thriving community of color that had been living in New Bedford for decades. His middle-class status and education were nothing new to this community. Coming from a long line of established small businessmen, Jourdain was the nephew of Andrew Bush, who founded Bush Cleaners in 1885.

After graduating from the Boston University School of Law in 1888, Jourdain opened law offices on William Street, just across from New Bedford’s Custom House, still the nation’s oldest continuously operating custom house. Jourdain balanced a legal career with an ever-growing public career.

It wasn’t long before Jourdain found himself among a steadily growing circle of black professionals and equal rights activists in residence or in council in New Bedford. By 1900, his Arnold Street house had become a critical gathering place for the black intellectual elite of the Northeast.

“Boston Radicals”

Born between 1855 and 1875, this generation of so-called “radicals” came up against unrelenting barriers and obstructions based on race.

Nonetheless, by accident of birth or by personal meritocracy, many of these radicals had life-altering experiences. Travels abroad, entry into prestigious schools and exposure to unexpected resources were advantages many in these circles had that other blacks did not enjoy.

Such advantages made these circles conspicuous, but it also obliged them to network and congregate with one another. They soon became representative leaders for a segment of America’s population that desperately needed agendas for public policy and political action.

By the turn of the 20th century, these circles were participating in and witnessing the birth of grassroots civil rights meetings and organizations in black America. One of the more famous of these gatherings took place in Niagara Falls, Canada, in 1905.

It was not by chance that E.B. Jourdain was one of the “original twenty-nine” who attended the first meeting of what became known as the “Niagara Movement.” In fact, he was typical of these original founding members who were often politically motivated and unabashedly opinionated when it came to the topic of equal rights for African Americans.

Jourdain and his guests debated the issues of their day in the seclusion of the New Bedford Annex. Back then the list of problems was extensive, and cloaked under concepts such as “separate but equal” or “Jim Crow.”

But it was clear where Jourdain stood on the equal rights issue. According to prominent historian Louis Harlan, Jourdain admired the work of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee, but was critical of Washington’s conservative public utterances and his failure to be more outspoken on matters of civil rights.