Slaves and Presidents at the White House
Construction on the President’s House began in 1792 in Washington, DC, a new capital situated in a sparsely settled region far from a major population center. Eleven U.S. presidents were slaveholders. Seven of those owned slaves while living at the White House: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor.
Image: Black cook working in the White House kitchen
Damp and moldy, the ground floor was a difficult place for the White House staff to work and live.
Photograph by Frances Benjamin
Slave Quarters at the White House
Not only did enslaved men and women work in the White House, but they also lived there; most often in rooms in the basement. Open at ground level on the south, the basement had windows on the north facing an area that was entirely hidden from view except from the kitchen. This vaulted corridor once accessed a forty-foot kitchen with large fireplaces at each end, a family kitchen, an oval servants hall, the steward’s quarters, and the servants’ bedrooms.
Slave Girls Searching for Freedom
In the seventeenth century, all slave states passed laws declaring that the children of an enslaved mother inherited her legal status. Mary and Emily Edmonson were two of fourteen children who survived to adulthood, all of whom were born into slavery in Maryland. In the late 1840s they became icons in the abolitionist movement.
Image: Mary Edmonson (standing) and Emily Edmonson (seated), shortly after they were freed
The Edmonson sisters were the daughters of Paul and Amelia Edmonson, a free black man and an enslaved woman. They were described as “two respectable young women of light complexion.” At the ages of 15 and 13, Mary (1832–1853) and Emily (1835–1895) were hired out to work as servants in two elite private homes in Washington DC; their wages were the sole income of Amelia’s mistress.
Saving Slaves from Bondage in the South
Tens of thousands of fugitives from the slave states of Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina found refuge in New Jersey. Most of them arrived here by crossing the Delaware River under the cover of darkness. Slaves and the courageous people who aided them on their journey risked their lives for freedom. Quaker Abigail Goodwin was one of the figures whose work was instrumental in the success of the Underground Railroad in New Jersey.
Image: Stations on the NJ UGRR
New Jersey’s path to abolition for all of its citizens was a rocky one. In 1804 New Jersey passed its first abolition law, An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. It freed all black children born on or after July 4, 1804, after serving an apprenticeship to their mother’s owner for 21 years for females and 25 years for males. A law passed by the state legislature in 1826 stated that fugitive slaves from other states who were residing or apprehended in New Jersey had to be returned to their owners.
Slave Who Escaped from Bondage in Maryland
Image: Exhibit at New Castle Court House Museum
Simulates Sam and Emeline Hawkins in jail in New Castle, Delaware
This exhibit Emeline Hawkins: Her Journey from Slavery to Freedom on the Underground Railroad chronicles the compelling story of Hawkins and her family. They were arrested in the slave state of Delaware while attempting to reach the free state of Pennsylvania.
In 1845, three noted abolitionists guided Emeline Hawkins and her family on their journey along the Underground Railroad. Conductor Samuel Burris led the Hawkins family out of Maryland and into Delaware. Station Masters Thomas Garrett and John Hunn fed and sheltered the family, and aided their escape through the state of Delaware and on to the free state of Pennsylvania.
Runaways Escaped to Freedom in Rhode Island
Image: Elizabeth Buffum Chace House
A station on the Underground Railroad
Valley Falls, Rhode Island
The Underground Railroad (UGRR) was a secret system of helping fugitive slaves escape to free states or Canada by hiding them in a succession of private homes by day and moving them farther north by night. In the 1830s, the small state of Rhode Island became increasingly involved in radical abolitionism. They were inspired by William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator, and his call for immediate emancipation. During this period, twenty-five anti-slavery societies were formed in the state.
Slaves Escaped the South on Northern Vessels
The Maritime Underground Railroad was a network of people who helped slaves travel by vessel from the southern United States to freedom in the North and Canada. Slaves escaped aboard the thousands of Southern ships that did business in the North and sailed regularly up and down the Atlantic coast. A clandestine society of slaves directed fugitives to the ships and black crewmen secreted them on board.
Image: Underground Railroad Routes on Land and Sea
Credit: National Geographic
Quakers Ran the Underground Railroad
In the seventeenth century, to the Englishmen who first settled Long Island, slavery was an accepted way of providing the labor force needed for agriculture and a comfortable life. After the arrival of the Quakers in the eighteenth century, attitudes were changed and the Underground Railroad began guiding slaves to freedom.
Image: Map of Long Island towns on the Underground Railroad
Stretching east-northeast from New York Harbor into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island comprises four counties: Kings County (Brooklyn) and Queens County (Queens) in the west, then Nassau County and Suffolk County to the east. The Island is 118 miles long from east to west and about 20 miles at its widest point, the largest island in the continental United States. It is separated from the mainland on the north by Long Island Sound and bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the south and east.
Pennsylvania Conductors Led Slaves to Freedom
Abolition of slavery was the great moral issue of the nineteenth century, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which allowed owners to capture their slaves in free northern states and return them to the South. The Underground Railroad (UGRR) was a loose grouping of people who risked home and safety to help runaways escape bondage. The penalties for their actions were severe. If caught, a stationmaster on the UGRR could be jailed and fined $20,000, a huge sum at that time.
The Constitution of the United States had a fugitive slave clause that Congress implemented with the first Fugitive Slave Law in 1793, placing a fine on anyone rescuing, harboring, or hindering the arrest of a fugitive. This law was rendered ineffective by a decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1842 but Congress passed a stronger Fugitive Slave Law as part of the Compromise of 1850, in which federal authorities were required to hunt runaway slaves and return them to their masters.
UGRR Routes and Stations in New York State
Cyrus Gates Farmstead
The Cyrus Gates Farmstead stands in the town of Maine in Broome County, New York. Construction of the house began in 1848; the Greek Revival style was considered extravagant for a farmhouse.
Image: Cyrus Gates House
Maine, New York
Important stop along the UGRR
Also at the farmstead are two barns, a tenant farmer’s house, several outbuildings, a blacksmith’s shop, a four seat outhouse. Cyrus Gates was a cartographer and mapmaker for the State of New York.
Cyrus and Arabella Gates were outspoken abolitionists. From 1848 until slavery officially ended in 1865, the Gates Farmstead was a station on the UGRR. While it was illegal to serve as stationmaster or conductor on the UGRR, many people did not consider it unethical. After arguing with Cyrus over “breaking the law,” Cyrus’ brother William Gates, an ardent Copperhead, moved out of the family home.
Ohio was the Promised Land
According to Ohio State University history professor Wilbur Siebert, Ohio had the most estensive Underground Railroad network of any other state, with an estimated 3000 miles of routes used by runaways. There were more that twenty points of entry on the Ohio River, and as many as ten exit points along Lake Erie.
Image: Underground Railroad Monument
Created by Cameron Armstrong at Oberlin College
The Underground Railroad did not run on tracks, nor was it under ground. The word underground was used because helping escaped slaves was illegal and must be kept secret. The word railroad spawned other terms to describe people and places associated with the practice of assisting runaway slaves:
• Slaves are cargo or passengers.
• Hiding places or safe houses are stations.
• Guides leading the fugitives to the next stop are conductors.
• People helping the escaping slaves, but not guiding them, are agents.
• People providing financial resources for these activities are stockholders.