For years Samuel Burris helped his fellow African-Americans flee the bonds of slavery. As he entered a Dover, Delaware, courtroom on November 2, 1847, however, the Underground Railroad conductor faced a future in chains himself.
Burris had been arrested earlier in the year after attempting to smuggle young Maria Matthews to freedom aboard a steamship. Authorities threw him in jail, charged him with two other counts of “enticing away a slave” and set bail at an astronomical $5,000.
Born in 1813 to free parents, Burris could read and write and worked as a farmer, laborer and teacher. By the time he was in his 30s, he became part of the Underground Railroad’s vast secret network. It’s unknown how many of Delaware’s approximately 2,500 slaves Burris helped liberate, but he did so at great risk to himself because African-Americans convicted of aiding the state’s slaves faced not only jail time but something even worse—being sold into slavery themselves.
Inside the Kent County Court House—which also doubled as Delaware’s state capitol—on that November day in 1847, the court convicted Burris on two counts. He was fined $500, sentenced to 10 months in prison and then ordered to be sold into slavery for 14 years.
After serving his prison sentence, Burris stood on the state capitol’s marble steps in September 1848 to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Abolitionist William Still, another African-American conductor on the Underground Railroad, reported in his diary that bidders pawed over Burris “from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head; legs, arms and body, being handled as horse-jockeys treat horses.” After Burris sold for $500, a figure unfamiliar to the state’s slaveholders stepped forward to claim his new property. According to Still, the winning bidder “whispered in the ear of Burris that all was right; that he had been bought with abolition gold to save him from going south.”
The stranger posing as a slaveholder turned out to be abolitionist Isaac Flint, a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, which had raised the funds to buy Burris and sneak him to freedom in Pennsylvania. Shortly after Burris reunited with his wife and five children in Philadelphia, the Delaware legislature passed a new law that mandated 60 lashes at a whipping post, a potentially lethal punishment, for anyone convicted a second time of aiding and abetting a slave. Rather than return to Delaware, Burris moved to California where he raised money to support freed slaves until his death in 1863.
Inside the same room in the Old State House where Burris was so harshly convicted, Delaware Governor Jack Markell yesterday rendered history’s verdict by overturning the decision handed down exactly 168 years earlier. Surrounded by several descendants of the Underground Railroad conductor, Markell signed a rare posthumous pardon.
“This pardon is an extraordinary act in recognition of a historic wrong that cannot be corrected by a single stroke of a pen,” Markell said. “But while we cannot change what was done more than 150 years ago, we can ensure that Mr. Burris’ legacy is appropriately recognized and celebrated. We affirm today that history will no longer record his actions as criminal, but rather as acts of freedom and bravery in the face of injustice.”
At the ceremony Ocea Thomas—great-great grandniece of Burris—read a powerful letter that her ancestor penned from his jail cell in March 1848. “My religion teaches me to believe that as the condition of our heart is when our mortal life leaves us so judgment will find our never dying souls,” Burris wrote to his brother. “And if so, what will be the condition of those who lived and died in neglect of that golden rule: do unto others as you would that others should do unto you? Is there a slave dealer who would be willing to be made a slave himself? I say no.”
An historical marker honoring Burris that will be erected near his former home outside Willow Grove, Delaware, was also unveiled at the ceremony. Delaware State University historian Robin Krawitz, who is penning a book about Burris, told the Dover Post, “We use the word too loosely now, but this man is a hero. We’re recognizing that from this point on that we were wrong back then.”
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