The Underground Railroad in the South was extremely cautious and careful, but it existed. It existed in the port cities of the Atlantic Coast and in the Appalachian mountains of the southern interior. It existed among certain church denominations—black Baptist, Quaker. It also existed informally where the American South met borders with Mexico or with Florida before its forced purchase by the United States.
As might be expected, and as slaveholders did expect, most of the aid to runaways in the South was given by free blacks and slaves. When the successful runaway Anthony Burns was kidnapped in Boston and then returned to Richmond, he kept his writing materials hidden while he was in jail. Six times Burns wrapped a letter around a rock and threw it out the jail window when he saw a black man passing. Every time the letter was mailed and reached its destination. This was an example of the unplanned aid to fugitives which made the Underground Railroad both hard to define and hard to control.
There were also some southern whites who aided fugitive slaves. Their activities are much more shrouded in darkness than those of the white northerners who came south and assisted fugitives. As early as the 1790s, there are accounts of whites encouraging slave revolts in Virginia. The slave, Gabriel, who had planned a wide conspiracy in Virginia in 1800, hid out for ten days on the river vessel of a white man. Gabriel was betrayed by a black boatman. Such activity, in the South, brought severe punishment, even death.
Particularly in the upper southern states, persons such as Thomas Garrett of Delaware worked with Harriet Tubman and others in Underground Railroad activities. Sarah and Angelina Grimke left South Carolina for Philadelphia because of their antislavery views. There they, too, participated in the Underground Railroad.
Elizabeth Barnes, who worked for a ship captain at Portsmouth, Virginia, hid slaves on vessels sailing for Boston and New Bedford. New Yorkers Edward Smith and Isaac Gansey of the schooner Robert Centre were charged by Virginia Governor Thomas W. Gilmer with having abducted a slave named Isaac. Three hundred dollars was offered for their delivery to the jailer at Norfolk.
The examples of northern abolitionists—who went South and then, either impulsively or with calculation, encouraged and abetted runaways—received more public notice than did the work of white southerners. In the summer of 1844, abolitionist Jonathan Walker, a Harwick, Massachusetts, sea captain, carpenter, and mechanic, took four fugitive slaves aboard his ship in Pensacola, Florida, with the intention of transporting them to freedom in the Bahamas. The ship was intercepted on the Florida Gulf coast and Walker was captured and taken to Key West, and then to Pensacola where he was indicted for enticing and stealing slaves. Jonathan Walker was branded with the letters “S.S.” for slave stealer, fined, imprisoned and even pilloried for one hour.
Charles Turner Torrey, a Massachusetts Congregational minister, was among the founders of the Boston Vigilance Committee in 1841. In 1843, he moved to Baltimore to enter business and to aid fugitives. Two years later, he was arrested and sentenced to six years of hard labor. After slightly more than a year in prison, Torrey died there of tuberculosis. Even if he had been released, the state of Virginia stood ready to extradite him for aiding the escape of John Webb and his two children from Winchester, Virginia. Emily Webb, the wife, was a free woman of color and the daughter of a white man named Carr. She was attempting to purchase the freedom of her family when she learned that they were to be sold south, prompting her to ask Torrey’s help.
Another well-known example of abolitionist activity in the South was the case of the ship Pearl. It attempted to leave Washington City in April 1848, with seventy-seven slaves. They would have left the ship as free persons when it docked in New York. Betrayed by an offended black man, the Pearl was seized. Its captain, Daniel Drayton, and owner, Sayres, were arrested and tried in Washington. The trial in the summer of 1848 lasted six weeks. Drayton was sentenced to prison. Sayres paid a fine of ten thousand dollars. After Drayton had served four years, his release was gained by black Boston lawyer Robert Morris in April 1853. Daniel Drayton committed suicide in New Bedford in 1857.
Leonard Grimes, born to free parents in Leesburg, Virginia, became a hackman (driver of a carriage for public hire) in Washington, D.C. He was part of a large group of African Americans, both free and fugitive, who had grown up in the South and were intimately acquainted with its geography and with many of its people. These residents of Washington were well positioned to aid runaways—and they did so. Grimes was apprehended by the local authorities on one of his trips to Virginia while he was attempting to transport a free black man and his slave family out of the state. He served two years in the Virginia penitentiary. After his release, Leonard Grimes moved north and became the minister of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston. He and his congregation continued to aid fugitives.
The most famous African American on the eastern seaboard for daring rescues was Harriet Tubman. Her escape had occurred just before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which made it easier for slaveholders to recapture fugitives or to hire “slavecatchers” to do it for them. Tubman became active in the Underground Railroad through her alliance with Philadelphia’s abolitionists and the city’s black vigilance committee. Disguising herself and often carrying a rifle, Tubman returned to the South nineteen times to guide groups of runaways, many of them her relatives. Even after Maryland plantation owners offered a bounty for her capture, she continued to venture into Maryland. Tubman worked frequently with Thomas Garrett, a Quaker businessman in Wilmington, Delaware who, in turn, worked with the Pennsylvania State Antislavery Society and the Philadelphia Antislavery Society.
When the last southern state left the Union in 1861, Tubman returned to the United States. She served the Union Army as a scout, spy, and nurse in the South. She received a little money from a book published in 1869, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, written for her and published by her old abolitionist friends but she never received a pension for her Civil War services. Tubman supported women’s suffrage and understood that the end of slavery was only one step toward citizenship. In her own life, she did not limit her antislavery activities to those considered acceptable for women and, in taking on dangerous rescue attempts, she sent a message that black women should not simply aspire to be nineteenth-century ladies once they had become free.
Harriet Tubman became a legend among African Americans even before the Civil War and her fame was justified. Quite possibly, she was the best-known African-American woman of the nineteenth century; her reluctance to talk about her role in the Underground Railroad only added to the aura surrounding her. Although her name was widely recognized among all Americans, the oral tradition of the African-American community kept many details alive until researchers sought out the story of the life of Harriet Tubman.
1. Why was it difficult to pinpoint the actions that southern whites took to aid fugitive slaves?
a. The Underground Railroad was not present in the South.
b. The whites hardly ever helped the fugitive slaves.
c. These actions, by their very nature, had to be secretive.
d. No one has written the history of whites who helped the fugitive slaves.
2. How did Elizabeth Barnes, Jonathan Walker, and Daniel Drayton help fugitives?
a. They all hid fugitive slaves on ships.
b. They were all fugitives themselves.
c. They gave the runaway slaves lodging in their houses.
d. They pleaded the cases of fugitive slaves in court.
3. Which of the following was a possible punishment for anyone who aided slaves?
a. prison time
b. public humiliation
d. all of the above
4. How did Charles Turner Torrey die?
a. He was caught helping fugitive slaves.
b. He became ill and died in prison.
c. He was murdered by slave catchers.
d. He died on a slave ship.
5. What was one major problem faced by many southern fugitives and those who aided them?
6. Which of the following gave the greatest support to the Underground Railroad?
a. slaves and free blacks
b. the government
c. southern families
7. Choose two people mentioned in this passage, and discuss how their actions helped further the emancipation of the slaves. For each person, accurately report what the individual did, and then explain why you think his or her actions were important.