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Photograph of Amelia Piper - woman with dark hair in an up-do. Woman wearing a dark-colored skirt and top with white collar and shirt cuffs. Woman sitting slightly hunched with both hands on her left waist/thigh.

Blake Family Collection

Abolitionist Amelia Piper (1796-1856), as one of the managers of the New Bedford Female Union Society, organized one of the first anti-slavery fairs in New Bedford held on January 1, 1840. Amelia and her husband helped many fugitives who came to New Bedford, including John Jacobs, brother of writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs. She with her husband and four children had come to New Bedford after fleeing from Alexandria, Virginia between 1826 and 1830.

Abolitionist Amelia Piper (1796-1856) fled Alexandria, Virginia with her husband and four children between 1826 and 1830 coming to New Bedford by the sea. Family lore has it that they came to New Bedford on a schooner owned by the Rotch family. Once safely housed in New Bedford, Piper family members did indeed work for William Rotch Rodman for many years as domestics, farmhands, and ship workers. Amelia was born in Alexandria and was not listed on any of the records of free Blacks in Virginia. Amelia and her husband William may not have been free when they came to New Bedford.

At the time, there were many New Bedford sea captains and crew members who traded up and down the Atlantic coast that would assist fugitives from slavery in their attempts to flee the South. Slavery had officially ended in Massachusetts in 1783. New Bedford had a reputation as an abolitionist stronghold. It was a place where these fugitives were welcomed and protected. Amelia, her husband William, and son Robert are mentioned in several slave narratives written by freedom seekers who spent time in New Bedford. Amelia’s name appears in several articles in The Liberator, a newspaper that reviewed the activities of New Bedford abolitionists at anti- slavery rallies in the city and in Boston.

As one of the managers of the New Bedford Female Union Society, Amelia organized one of the first anti-slavery fairs in New Bedford held on January 1, 1840. The fair was held to raise funds in aid of The Liberator and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Women abolitionists supported the activities of the Anti-Slavery Society by collecting and selling the autographs of famous men and women and by selling specialized handiwork and baked goods. The fairs were usually held once a year in New England cities, such as Boston and New Bedford, that would take turns hosting the events. Funds were used to support the speaking tours of noted abolitionists, pay the printing bills of The Liberator, and on occasion help pay for the freedom of fugitives in danger of being returned to slavery. The New Bedford Female Union Society was an African American women’s anti-slavery group. While many local women were organized to end slavery, the groups were still by and large segregated. Quoting from a letter published in The Liberator and signed by Amelia as the Society’s manager, the group met twice weekly “to ply our needles and fingers, to talk over the wrongs of our countrymen and women in chains, and pray that the time will soon come when every yoke shall be broken.”

Amelia and her husband helped many fugitives who came to New Bedford by providing shelter and assisting them in managing their new life in freedom. These fugitives are referred to as “packages” in the letters of abolitionists and conductors on the Underground Railroad. Those escaping will remain nameless but Amelia’s role as a conductor will not, as her bravery was recorded in the slave narratives of appreciative fugitives. One of the best-known fugitives assisted by Amelia and William was John Jacobs, brother of writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs, who shipped out of New Bedford with help from the Pipers. The Piper family served as a go-between for John and his sister while he was out to sea. Amelia and William Piper were the first of three generations of a family that were active abolitionists and Underground Railroad activists who fought for the end of slavery in the United States.

Lee Blake, New Bedford Historical Society

Information from

  • Abajian, James de T., compiler. Blacks in Selected Newspapers, Censuses and other Sources. G.K. Hall, 1977. 3 vols.

  • “Anti-Slavery Fair.” The Liberator [Boston] 23 Aug. 1839.

  • William Cooper Nell: Selected Writings 1831-1874. Edited by Dorothy Porter. Black Classic Press, 2002.

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