History Matters: Delaware runaway slave Solomon Bayley's fugitive narratives
In part two of our History Matters series on Delaware and the Underground Railroad, we turn to fugitive narratives - pamphlets published before, during and after the Civil War by runaway slaves or abolitionists helping them.
The narratives provide first-hand accounts of what life was like for those fugitives while enslaved, during their journies to freedom, and even life after freedom.
Many of these narratives were destroyed after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but some still exist, including those of a slave born in Delaware: Solomon Bayley.
Snippets of Bayley’s story appear in a 2008 booklet written by First State historian Peter Dalleo. Delaware Public Media’s Megan Pauly tells more of that story and the importance of fugitive narratives.
“The most interesting thing – to me, as a researcher - is to hear peoples’ stories about what life was like, and how they managed to escape enslavement and what it took," said Robin Krawitz, President of the Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware.
She says fugitive narratives have played an important role in preserving the stories of slavery, escape – and beyond.
“Sometimes they would sit down with local abolitionists where they ended up, and they would go ahead and write it down for them, because a lot of these people were illiterate," Krawitz said. "The purpose of them was to No. 1 – highlight how awful slavery was, because of course as an abolitionist that’s the first thing you want people to know, and No. 2 – it is about helping to raise money for these people, for the cause, and that’s what these stories help to do.”
Solomon Bayley authored his own fugitive narrative in 1825 – after he had already escaped to freedom.
His narrative came in the form of an over 40-page booklet, a common format for the stories.
“Why the ones that survived survived? Luck of the draw," said Peter Dalleo, a researcher for the Delaware Historical Society’s Center for African American Heritage.
Bayley was born into slavery in Kent County, Delaware in the 1770s.
After his slave owner – originally from Virginia - dies, Bayley and his family are moved to Virginia.
“That was all legal to do – but then the owner sold the slaves out of state in Virginia which was illegal," Dalleo said.
Bayley was sold to a family living close to Richmond – and was separated from his family members. But on his way there, he makes his escape.
“Solomon slips out of the wagon – the carriage – and hides," Dalleo said.
Solomon’s escape journey doesn’t stop there.
“Solomon Bayley’s story is just amazing to me because of the many modes he chose to escape," said Debbie Martin, with Delaware's Underground Railroad Coalition.
She also worked with Dalleo to publish sections of fugitive narratives from Delaware.
“Solomon Bayley went from Richmond, in a boat, with another person down the James River to the Chesapeake and up the peninsula and mentioned a couple of places – a Nandew and a Hunting Creek – and we can actually put those places on the map in the Virginia part of the peninsula," Martin said. "How he got through Maryland we have no idea. And then he ended up at a place called Anderson’s Crossroads.”
Dalleo says Bayley also documented other key events – like making his way back to Virginia to bring his mother to freedom, and efforts to purchase his son Spence’s freedom at an auction.
“The tension in that is tremendous because he’s got people bidding against him – against Solomon for Spence, and it looks like Solomon is going to loose him, but fortunately someone in the crowd helps Solomon in gaining Spence’s freedom," Dalleo said.
Eventually, however, Solomon’s slave owner catches up with him.
“He says, Solomon – you’re going to have to pay me or you’re going to have to do something because I own you. And Solomon says that’s not fair, I’m going to start a lawsuit against you," Dalleo said.
They ultimately strike an agreement, with Solomon working for a while longer to pay for his freedom.
Then just a few years after Bayley’s first fugitive narrative booklet is published – he and his wife Thamar move to Africa.
“Which is a whole other story – but it’s part of his narrative," Dalleo said. "He was inspired by a merchant in New England – Captain Paul Cuffee.”
Cuffee wanted to get Liberians back to Africa to help settle Sierra Leone.
“The back to Africa movement was not well received in many parts of Delaware by whites or by blacks," Dalleo said.
Bayley later published a second, much shorter narrative in 1833 -- describing his life in Liberia.
“It’s more of a come and visit, these are the things you can grow, these are things you can eat, and these are things you can’t eat," Dalleo said.
According to Dalleo, Bayley intended to train Liberians to become Christian capitalists.
“But it’s also very useful to find out the narratives in general – to find out their selfhood – to find out how they’re actually surviving this, not just through resisting either overtly or covertly, but what made them as people?”
Bayley’s spirituality played an important role throughout his life - and he eventually became a Methodist preacher in Liberia. His spirituality shows up in letters he sent to his friend Joseph Bringhurst in Wilmington.
In one of those preserved letters Bayley says:
“Did I say I was joyful – yes –to think of that good hand of Providence that appeared unto me in the wilderness when I was sent away to the back country to be sold from my wife and first born child?”
Bringhurst was an abolitionist and friend of Thomas Garrett - as well as a member of the American Colonization Society, a Quaker society focused on repatriation to Africa.
The correspondence between Bayley and Bringhurst also included business of the day: lists of items Bayley would like to purchase, along with inventories of goods sent to Liberia. They also detail agricultural struggles, citing local crops weren't as easily shipped like wheat or corn in America.
And at times the letters indicate life in Africa wasn’t easy for Bayley:
“It seems the time has come to ask who is on the Lord’s side: seeing the people are so much against another.”
Still, Bayley and his wife remained in Africa until their death.
Bayley’s 1825 fugitive narrative pamphlet and select letters sent to Bringhurst from Africa are preserved in University of Delaware’s special collections and currently on display at the university’s Morris Library.
Delaware’s homage to the Underground Railroad continues this month with events March 10th & 11th- marking Harriet Tubman Day on the 10th, and the opening of Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Visitor Center.
A special thanks to the University of Delaware’s Special Collections Department, Mount Pleasant High School teacher BonifaceNebaand the Delaware Historical Society in the production of this piece.