Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Trials of Samuel Burris, Conductor on the Underground Railroad

One of the best-documented "conductors" on the Underground Railroad in Delaware was free black man name Samuel D. Burris. Between 1844 and 1851 he led dozens of people north to freedom. In his account of the Undeground Railroad, first published in 1871, former operator William Still had this to say about Burris:
Mr. Burris was a native of Delaware, but being a free man and possessing more than usual intelligence, and withal an ardent love of liberty, he left "slave-dom" and moved with his family to Philadelphia. Here his abhorrence of Slavery was greatly increased, especially after becoming acquainted with the Anti-slavery Office and the Abolition doctrine. Under whose auspices or by what influence he was first induced to visit the South with a view of aiding slaves to escape, the writer does not recollect; nevertheless, from personal knowledge, prior to 1851, he well knew that Burris was an accredited agent on the road above alluded to, and that he had been considered a safe, wise, and useful man in his day and calling. Probably the simple conviction that he would not otherwise be doing as he would be done by actuated him in going down South occasionally to assist some of his suffering friends to get the yokes off their necks, and with him escape to freedom. A number were thus aided by Burris. But finally he found himself within the fatal snare; the slave-holders caught him at last, and Burris was made a prisoner in Dover jail. His wife and children were thereby left without their protector and head. The friends of the slave in Philadelphia and elsewhere deeply sympathized with him in this dreadful hour. Being able to use the pen, although he could not write without having his letters inspected, he kept up a constant correspondence with his friends both in Delaware and Philadelphia. John Hunn and Thomas Garrett [white Quakers involved in the Underground Railroad] were as faithful to him as brothers. After lying in prison for many months, his trial came on and Slavery gained the victory. The court decided that he must be sold in or out of the State to serve for seven years. No change, pardon or relief, could be expected from the spirit and power that held sway over Delaware at that time.

The case was one of great interest to Mr. McKim, as indeed to the entire Executive Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-slavery Society, who felt constrained to do all they could to save the poor man from his threatened fate, although they had not advised or encouraged him in the act for which he was condemned and about to suffer. In viewing his condition, but a faint ray of hope was entertained from one single direction. It was this: to raise money privately and have a man at the auction on the day of sale to purchase him. John Hunn and Thomas Garrett were too well known as Abolitionists to undertake this mission. A friend indeed, was desirable, but none other would do than such an one as would not be suspected. Mr. McKim thought that a man who might be taken for a Negro trader would be the right kind of a man to send oh this errand. Garrett and Hunn being consulted heartily acquiesced in this plan, and after much reflection and inquiry, Isaac S. Flint, an uncompromising abolitionist, living in Wilmington, Delaware, was elected to buy Burris at the sale, providing that he was not run up to a figure exceeding the amount in hand.

Flint's abhorrence of Slavery combined with his fearlessness, cool bearing, and perfect knowledge from what he had read of the usages of traders at slave sales, without question admirably fitted him to play the part of a trader for the time being.

When the hour arrived, the doomed man was placed on the auction-block. Two traders from Baltimore were known to be present; how many others the friends of Burris knew not. The usual opportunity was given to traders and speculators to thoroughly examine the property on the block, and most skillfully was Burris examined from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head; legs, arms and body, being handled as horse-jockies treat horses. Flint watched the ways of the traders and followed for effect their example. The auctioneer began and soon had a bid of five hundred dollars. A Baltimore trader was now in the lead, when Flint, if we mistake not, bought off the trader for one hundred dollars. The bids were thus suddenly checked, arid Burris was knocked down to Isaac S. Flint (a strange trader). Of course he had left his abolition name at home and had adopted one suited to the occasion. When the crier's hammer indicated the last bid, although Burris had borne up heroically throughout the trying ordeal, he was not by any means aware of the fact that he had fallen into the hands of friends, but, on the contrary, evidently labored under the impression that his freedom was gone. But a few moments were allowed to pass ere Flint had the bill of sale for his property, and the joyful news was whispered in the ear of Burris that all was right; that he had been bought with abolition gold to save him from going south. Once more Burris found himself in Philadelphia with his wife and children and friends, a stronger opponent than ever of Slavery. Having thus escaped by the skin of his teeth, he never again ventured South.
In 1852 Burris moved to San Francisco, and after the Civil War he helped raised money from California's black churches to assist freedmen settled around Washington and Philadelphia.

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