In honor of African American History Month, this week's History Matters -produced in conjunction with the Delaware Historical Society - is the first in a two-part look at stories from the Underground Railroad.
First up is the story of Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett and his watershed trial of 1848. Garrett was a key figure working as a Station Master on Delaware’s portion of the Underground Railroad – helping thousands of slaves make the trek across the Delmarva Peninsula and escape north to freedom.
In the years leading up to the Civil War - tensions over slavery and how various states dealt with issues relating to it were bubbling up.
In 1848, those tensions surfaced in Delaware as Thomas Garrett – an outspoken advocate for the rights of African Americans – was standing trial at the New Castle Courthouse.
It was a federal case – with two slave owners claiming Garrett, with the help of Odessa farmer John Hunn - assisted their runaway slaves in reaching freedom in Philadelphia.
“The amount of help they gave was pretty minimal, and their fines were severe," said Robin Krawitz, President of the Underground Coalition of Delaware. "So this nexus of these two elements made these people nationally famous in the abolition community.”
John Hunn entered a guilty plea, paid a hefty fine and escaped a trial. But not Thomas Garrett.
“Mr. Garrett sees this trial as a soapbox," said Brian Cannon, lead interpreter for the New Castle Court House Museum. "He wants the trial.”
Cannon says this wasn’t the first time Mr. Garrett has helped runaway slaves, or for that matter, been charged for helping them escape: at this point he’d already been convicted of helping slaves in Maryland escape.
This case also involved a slave family living in Maryland, with members of the Hawkins family owned by two different slave owners – a Mrs. Turner and a Mr. Glanding.
“What people don’t appreciate is the complexity of some slaves life," Cannon said. "The Hawkins family is an excellent example. Sam is a free man, he’s a sharecropper, he rents a farm. Sam is renting a farm and Mrs. Turner is a widow. She allows Emeline and her four younger children to live with her on the farm and their also allowed to go back and spend time with their husband and their father. The two older boys owned by Glanding, don’t get to live with the rest of their family but they do get to see each other. It’s a unique situation, you don’t picture slaves being allowed to go live with a free man on a farm away from their owner.”
Sam Hawkins tried to purchase the freedom of his enslaved family members – but his request was denied.
To keep the family together, he requests help from the Delaware Underground Railroad.
“Ingleside is about 3-4 miles or so west of Dover and 50 miles south of the border with Pennsylvania," Cannon said. "Sam, Emeline and the kids are 50 miles from freedom and to them that was probably the other side of the moon."
With the help of Samuel Burris – a free black man, and conductor on the Underground Railroad – the family made their way to Delaware by way of Odessa farm of John Hunn.
While at the Hunn farm – the family was discovered, arrested and taken to the Constable’s office in Middletown, and then sent on to jail in New Castle.
Meanwhile – while officials were working to sort out legal paperwork required to hold the family in jail – the local sheriff alerted Thomas Garrett.
“The local sheriff sees what’s going on and sends a note to Thomas Garrett stating that there is a package for him, meaning the runaway slaves, so he goes down to New Castle," Cannon said.
Garrett managed to pull off some fancy legal footwork, with the help of the Chief Justice for the state of Delaware – Judge James Booth.
He requested of Judge Booth a writ of habeaus corpus – alleging the family was being held unlawfully. Sam was a free black man, and Emaline had some form of a manumission document – a document confirming the act of a slave owner freeing one’s slave.
“He probably could have found some ways to ask questions about this, but he doesn’t want to because he wants to help the family and legally do it," Cannon said.
And as for the two sons – owned by a different slave owner, Mr. Glanding.
“Delaware had a unique law: this law says that a black person walking down the street is presumed to be free unless the authorities have suspicions to suspect otherwise," Cannon said.
And with that, the Hawkins family was set free and escaped to Pennsylvania by way of the Garrett residence.
But soon after – the family’s slave owners came knocking. They sued based on the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act.
“The original slave law basically says: if a runaway slave – even if they’re in New England, or Ohio or whatever –they’re still a runaway slave," Cannon said. "And citizens of those states are incumbent on them to capture them and return them to slavery.”
In 1848 – the year of Garrett’s trial - slavery wasn’t that common in Northern Delaware.
“Delaware early on realized that this isn’t an area for cotton, it isn’t an area for good tobacco so we start to go with corn and wheat and raising cows and horses," Cannon said. "You don’t need a slave population for that.”
But slave owners from south and central Delaware were called to sit on the jury.
Judge Roger Taney, who at the time was serving as a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, presided over the case.
A slave owner himself, Taney and the jury ruled in favor of the slave owners. The case set the precedent for the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 two years later, which reinforced the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act and made it stronger.
Judge Taney also presided over the 1857 Dred Scott decision, virtually stripping away all rights for blacks – both slaves and free men.
Krawitz said these series of cases – worsening conditions for African Americans – all pushed the country closer to the Civil War.
“What was the right that the south wanted? It was to hold enslaved people," Krawitz said. "So it’s about slavery and so this just ratcheted up the heat, it’s like having a pot of water, and you crank up the heat a little bit on that burner, and all of a sudden you’ve got it roiling. And that’s part of what was going on at the time moving us towards the Civil War.”
In the trial of 1848 - Thomas Garrett lost everything – just managing to escape a jail sentence after scrounging up over $5,000.
“It was a really – to say they threw the book at them – is really what happened," Krawitz said. "So these people who were prominent, from wealthy families, lost virtually every penny they had to pay the fines.”
But even after his trial – Thomas Garrett vowed to redouble his efforts to help slaves.
While researching the New Castle Courthouse’s current exhibit about Garrett and his trial – Cannon said he and others were able to confirm at least 2,700 accounts of Garrett directly helping men, women and children escape to freedom.
And Cannon adds that number is probably low – since Mr. Garrett didn’t keep a master list of those he helped.
But he’s pretty sure he knows why Mr. Garrett got into it in the first place.
“This whole idea of having a young black family in his family’s household, kidnapped, was enough to make him realize that this whole idea of slavery is wrong, not only with dealing with slaves but free blacks stands at risk," Cannon said. "So even if you accept the idea that slavery is ok, now you have to accept the idea that any black person can be kidnapped from Massachusetts, Delaware or anywhere else and sold into slavery somewhere else. This whole idea is kind of what changes his moral compass.”
When blacks gained the right to vote through the 15th Amendment in 1870 – Garrett was carried on the shoulders of black supporters through the streets of Wilmington – hailing him their Moses.
“Why did they step up and do it? That’s what makes them heroes I think, people who are willing to put themselves on the line for others," Krawitz said.
A legacy that’s still celebrated today in the First State.