Delaware: A Short Path to Freedom
Delaware, the northernmost slave state, may be small but it played a big part in the lives of men and women fleeing from slavery. The city of Wilmington was the last station on the Underground Railroad (UGRR). With the slave state of Maryland on one side and the free states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey on the other, Delaware offered a direct route to freedom.
Image: Map of the United States showing routes traveled by fugitive slaves
Running the Underground Railroad
The system of aiding fugitives was established in the early 1800s, but the term Underground Railroad was not used to describe the network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape to the North until the early 1830s. Aiding them in their flight were a string of abolitionists who helped them along their way, even though such actions violated state and federal laws.
Mission to Rescue Slaves in Washington, DC
Pearl was the name of a sixty-five foot Chesapeake Bay Schooner that was chartered by free African Americans for $100 to rescue 77 people from slavery in Washington, DC in 1848. The Pearl Incident was the largest recorded nonviolent escape attempt by slaves in United States history.
Image: Map of the Voyage
Like the nearby states of Maryland and Virginia, Washington, DC had a slave market and was part of the slave trade; because it was connected to the Chesapeake Bay by the Potomac River, slaves were shipped or marched overland through this city. Slaves worked as domestic servants and artisans for their owners, or were hired out to work for others. Free blacks and whites were active in the city, trying to abolish slavery and the slave trade. In 1848 free blacks outnumbered slaves in the District of Columbia by three to one.
The first Africans in Virginia brought to Jamestown in 1619 were quickly purchased on the same terms as English indentured servants: after seven years of labor, they were free. By 1625, there were said to be twenty-three Africans serving in Virginia; twenty-five years later, there were 300.
Image: Slaves Waiting For Sale in the Richmond Slave Market
Oil Painting by Eyre Crowe
Slavery in Colonial Virginia
Blacks were not automatically slaves in early Virginia. Some held property, married and raised families outside the institution of slavery. Before 1660, most slaves in Virginia lived on plantations with two or three others, and most slaves were male. Interactions with whites were common and restrictions based exclusively on race were not rigid.
Conductor on the Underground Railroad
Quakers Levi and Catherine Coffin helped thousands of fugitive slaves to safety in Newport, Indiana and Cincinnati, Ohio through the Undergound Railroad, a network of more than 3,000 homes and other stations that helped runaway slaves travel from southern states to freedom in northern states and Canada.
Image: Catherine Coffin and her husband Levi
On October 28, 1824, Levi Coffin married Catherine White, sister of his brother-in-law and long-time friend. The Coffins and the Whites were Quakers and abolitionists who opposed slavery. Catherine’s family is believed to have been involved in helping runaway slaves, and it is likely she met Levi while taking part in these activities. Catherine gave birth to Jesse, the first of their six children, in 1825.
Women Slaves in the Colony of Virginia
Slavery is a civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the fortune, life and liberty of another. Chattel slavery further defines that relationship with the added dimension of ownership as personal property (chattel), in which the chattel can be bought and sold as if they were commodities. Chattel slavery was legal in the American colonies from the mid-17th century to the end of the Civil War in 1865.
A slave is a human being who is forced to obey the commands of others, and to work for nothing. A chattel slave is an enslaved person who is owned forever and whose children and children’s children are automatically enslaved as well. A chattel slave has no rights, and is no longer viewed as a human being, but as an object used to accomplish a task, like any other tool.
Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Activist
The first woman to address a state legislature (Massachusetts in 1836), Angelina Grimke fearlessly traveled across New York and New England, speaking out against slavery at a time when women were scarcely seen and never heard in the public arena. In order to lecture about this sensitive issue she had to first fight for her right, as a woman, to participate in the abolionist movement.
Born and raised in South Carolina, Grimke grew to detest the institution of slavery at an early age. Unable to influence her family to free their slaves, Angelina joined her older sister Sarah in Philadelphia, where they became Quakers, and soon thereafter began to fight for emancipation.
Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist who escaped from slavery in New York in 1826. She began as an itinerant preacher and became a nationally known advocate for equality and justice, sponsoring a variety of social reforms, including women’s property rights, universal suffrage and prison reform.
She was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 on the estate of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh in Swartekill, a Dutch settlement in upstate New York. She was one of 13 children born to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, who were slaves on the Hardenbergh plantation. Both the Baumfrees and the Hardenberghs spoke Dutch in their daily lives. After the colonel’s death, ownership of the Baumfrees passed to his son Charles.
Slave Freed by Abolitionists in Philadelphia
Jane Johnson (1820-1872) was a slave whose escape to freedom was the focus of precedent-setting legal cases in 19th century Philadelphia. Safeguarded by Philadelphia abolitionists after her escape in 1855, Johnson later settled in Boston. There she married, and sheltered other fugitives slaves. Her son Isaiah served in the American Civil War with the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops.
Jane Johnson is believed to have been born into slavery as Jane Williams in or near Washington, DC, the daughter of John and Jane Williams; the exact year of her birth is unknown. Virtually nothing is known of her early life, which she presumably spent on Virginia plantations; it is believed that she lived for part of that time in Caroline County and had several owners.
Slavery and the American Revolution
In early 1775, Patriots in the Virginia Colony began to organize militia companies and seek out military supplies (weapons, ammunition, and gunpowder) to arm and equip them for the conflict that seemed to be inevitable. The Virginia Conventions were organized by the Patriots after Royal Governor Lord Dunmore (John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore) dissolved the House of Burgesses in an effort to retain Royal control of the colony.
After Patrick Henry gave his “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!” speech on March 23, 1775, at the Second Virginia Convention, Dunmore became concerned. Among the delegates to the convention were future U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The conventions would serve as a revolutionary provisional government until the establishment of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia in 1776.
Thomas Jefferson’s Slave and Mistress
Sally Hemings was the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings and, allegedly, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law – Elizabeth Hemings and her children did live at John Wayles’ plantation during his lifetime. In 18th-century Virginia, children born to slave mothers inherited their legal status, therefore Elizabeth and Sally Hemings and all their children, were legally slaves, even when the fathers were their white masters.
If Sally Hemings’ father was John Wayles, she would have been the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. After Wayles died in 1773, Martha inherited the Hemings family; when Martha died in 1782, she left the Hemings family to Thomas Jefferson.