Delaware Gov. Jack Markell recently decided to rectify an injustice that occurred in the 1840s. That is when a free black man named Samuel Burris was convicted and sentenced for the crime of conducting slaves along the road to freedom.
Burris was a farmer and a teacher from Willow Grove in Kent County. He abhorred the institution of slavery and derided the legal system that permitted human beings to be bought and sold in Delaware.
Burris became a conductor on the Underground Railroad in the 1840s and worked in conjunction with other abolitionists, both black and white, to assist escaping slaves. One of his collaborators was Thomas Garrett, a Wilmington Quaker and UGRR stationmaster who harbored some 2,700 fugitive slaves in their quest to reach the Pennsylvania border (see Coastal Point, June 19, 2015).
In 1847, Delaware authorities charged Burris with helping slaves escape and sentenced him to two seven-year terms of servitude. While in jail, he vented his spleen in a letter: “They uphold and applaud those slave traffickers, and those inhuman and unmerciful leeches, in their soul-damning conduct, by making the colored people legal subjects for their bloody principles to feast on.”
When he was put on the block to be sold, however, Garrett and others came to his rescue. They arranged through the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society for a sympathetic Quaker named Isaac Flint to purchase him for the price of $500 — who then quietly set him free. Despite this traumatic experience, Burris remained undaunted and resumed his role as an UGRR conductor.
CNN reported on Nov. 2 that Markell, acting on a recommendation from the state Board of Pardons, officially pardoned Burris for the offense for which he had been charged. The governor acknowledged that pardons are not normally granted posthumously: “This is really an extraordinary case … an opportunity to right a wrong for a person with steadfast courage who put [himself] at risk.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/30/us/underground-railroad-burris-delaware-go...)
Ocea Thomas of Atlanta, Ga., a descendant of Burris who had written letters requesting the pardon for her ancestor, along with several other descendants, were present when Markell signed the official document. They gathered at the Old State House in Dover, the actual site of Burris’ trial and conviction.
On Nov. 2, the Delaware State News reported that, by signing the pardon, Markell officially absolved Burris of the crime of assisting escaped slaves. The ceremony acknowledged the UGRR conductor’s courage in the face of danger. The governor elaborated:
“So it is my honor to be here this morning as Delaware addresses this injustice and promotes the healing that we need. Samuel Burris is a true Delawarean, I believe a hero. … His personal story shall remain a part of Delaware’s history.”
Robert Seeley, a descendant of Thomas Garrett, was active in lobbying for Burris’ pardon. He collaborated with state historian Robin Krawitz, who is writing a book about Burris. Krawitz commented, “We can look back and say that our system was wrong. [Burris] was not wrong; he was practicing civil disobedience.”
An historic marker in honor of Samuel Burris is located at the site of his home, the intersection of Willow Grove and Henry Cowgill roads southwest of Camden and Wyoming. It affirms that “He helped enslaved people find their pathway to freedom in Philadelphia,” and “He continued to help people gain their freedom by raising funds until his death in 1863.”
Samuel Burris joins Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett as Delaware’s leading historic figures associated with the Underground Railroad.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.