History Podcasts

The Largest Attempted Slave Escape in American History

The Largest Attempted Slave Escape in American History

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

All through the night of April 15, 1848, slaves slipped out of their masters’ houses and crept through the streets of Washington, D.C. Their destination was the Pearl, a schooner that promised freedom to as many people who could fit on board. As more and more people filled the boat—77 in all—hope surged through the assembled slaves and the boat’s white crew. Freedom was just 225 miles away…that is, if they made it that far.

Now known simply as the Pearl Incident, the plot was one of the most daring of its era, and one of the most infamous. It was the largest attempted slave escape in American history—one that was doomed from the start.

The slaves’ decision to board the Pearl was not spontaneous; it was the product of months of planning. It was the brainchild, in part, of two free black men who had seen slavery firsthand. And though the stakes were high, the potential payoff was more than worth it.

Paul Edmonson knew the risks and rewards well. He was free, but his wife, Amelia, wasn’t—and Maryland law meant that all 14 of the children he had with his enslaved wife belonged to her mistress, Rebecca Culver. Though four of his children had purchased their freedom, the rest were still enslaved and their labor leased out to rich D.C. families.

Paul Jennings, who had been the slave of President James Madison’s family until his wife, Dolley, freed him in her will, was also active in the city’s anti-slavery movement, and the two men reached out to William Chaplin, one of Washington’s most prominent abolitionists. Chaplin and others, including Gerrit Smith, a philanthropist known for using his riches to fund anti-slavery efforts and assist African-Americans, agreed to fund the plan.

Captain Daniel Drayton, hated slavery, and during years of sailing up and down the Atlantic coast, the pleas he heard from enslaved people touched his heart. “Why had not these black people, so anxious to escape from their masters, as good a light to their liberty as I had to mine?” he wrote in a memoir of the incident. Drayton hired the Pearl as the escape vessel, enlisting the ship’s white captain, Edward Sayres, and a single boatman to assist with the escape.

News spread that the ship would depart on April 15, and slaves hatched plans to head to the wharf on the Potomac that night. Among them were six Edmonson siblings, including 13-year-old Mary and 15-year-old Emily.

But though hopes were high, the tide—literally—was against the escape attempt. As the boat slipped into Chesapeake Bay on its way to New Jersey, a free state, it faced a strong headwind and the tide brought the ship to a halt within hours. The Pearl was forced to drop anchor near Point Lookout, Maryland.

Hours later, a posse hired by the slaves’ furious owners rendezvoused with the boat. They dragged the ship, slaves and crew back to Washington. “All on board were…made prisoner without bloodshed, although it was evident that the slaves would have resisted if there were any chance of escape,” wrote a local newspaper.

But the real danger awaited them in Washington, D.C., where an angry mob had gathered at the dock.The slaves, many of them in manacles and chains, were paraded through the streets. The mob taunted and threatened them and yelled obscenities at Drayton and his collaborators.

Then they turned on the nearby office of an abolitionist paper and threatened an openly abolitionist Congressman they accused of supporting the escape. The riot that ensued lasted for three days.

The aftermath was brutal for the slaves who dared to escape. All of them were sold to plantations further south as punishment—a common practice that ensured hard labor and separation from their families. Drayton and Sayres were tried, convicted of 77 counts of illegally transporting a slave and aiding a slave, and thrown into jail when they could not pay their fines. They only left jail four years later, when President Millard Fillmore, who was sometimes accused of being an abolitionist by his Southern enemies, pardoned them.

The fates of all 77 slaves are not known, but at least two of them eventually gained freedom. Paul Edmonson used the publicity of the Pearl disaster to raise money for his daughters’ release, and in November 1848 they were emancipated with funds raised by white abolitionists. Both spoke out against slavery and were educated, but Mary died tragically when she was just 20.

The escape was a catastrophe for the slaves who dared make a run for it. But ironically, their disastrous escape attempt helped end the slave trade in Washington, D.C. The Pearl incident and Washington Riot became so well known that pressure to stop the slave trade in the nation’s capital mounted. In 1850, aided by the publicity of the Pearl incident, Congress stopped allowing the import and sale of slaves into the District of Columbia. However, existing slaves in the District were still sold in the city’s thriving slave market.

The Pearl incident helped stop slavery in another way, too: Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famous abolitionist author, cited the failed escape as an inspiration for her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And that book helped shock America into abolishing slavery for good.

Top 10 Black Slaveowners

The US has a long and gruesome history of slavery that has affected almost every part of its culture. Children in school learn the harsh circumstances that slaves were forced to live with and the incredible cruelty white slave owners showed them. American history teachers know how important it is to teach the horrors of slavery&mdashnot only so the mistakes of the past aren&rsquot repeated but because the long-term oppression and cruelty toward black people extends even to modern times in important cultural issues such as police brutality and a cycle of poverty that is directly linked to racism caused by slavery.

What isn&rsquot often taught is that there were many black people who not only participated in the slave trade but who often profited greatly from it. They owned slaves as property in order to enhance their own economical well-being by having free labor for their plantations. Many were biracial children of former white masters and were either freed or were left some property in a will. The American South is infamous for using slaves on their large plantations, and many of the black slave owners on this list are from South Carolina and Louisiana. Some were considered slave magnates (for owning more than 50 slaves), but others earned their place simply for their unique stories.

The Pearl Incident, 1848

The Pearl Incident in 1848 was the single largest recorded escape attempt by enslaved people in United States history. On April 15, 1848, 77 slaves attempted to flee Washington, D.C. by sailing away on a schooner called The Pearl. They planned to sail south along Potomac River and then north up the Chesapeake Bay, cross overland to the Delaware River and then to the free state of New Jersey, a distance of nearly 225 miles.

The mass escape attempt was organized by both black and white abolitionists in Washington, D.C. Free blacks Paul Jennings, the former slave of President James Madison, and Paul Edmonson, whose wife and 14 children were still enslaved, were the initiators of the escape. They enlisted the help of William Chaplin, a Washington, D.C. white abolitionist who in turn contacted Philadelphia abolitionist Daniel Drayton, Captain and owner of The Pearl, and pilot Edward Sayres. Wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith of New York provided financial backing for the escape.

With the help of numerous members of Washington’s free black community, 77 enslaved men, women, and children from across the city and surrounding areas slipped away from their places of work or residence on the evening of April 15 and made their way to The Pearl at a wharf on the Potomac. They boarded the ship which set sail down the Potomac River and then turned north into Chesapeake Bay. The wind was against the schooner, however, forcing it to anchor for the night. The next morning, numerous Washington, D.C. slaveholders, realizing their slaves and The Pearl were missing, sent out an armed posse of 35 men on the steamboat Salem. The posse caught up with The Pearl near Point Lookout, Maryland, boarded the vessel, and took the slaves and the ship back to Washington.

Supporters of slavery were outraged at the attempted escape. An angry mob formed and for the next three days lashed out at suspected white abolitionists and the entire free black community of Washington in what would be known as the first Washington Riot. The mob focused much of its wrath on Gamaliel Bailey and his antislavery newspaper The New Era. Convinced that Bailey had helped plan the mass escape (he had not), the mob broke several windows of the newspaper’s office, but were held off by the police from harming Bailey.

Once the Washington Riot ended, the slaveowners sold the attempted escapees to slave traders from Georgia and Louisiana, who promptly took them to New Orleans, Louisiana. Two of the Edmonson children, Mary and Emily, were purchased and freed with funds raised by Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. Drayton, Sayres, and Chester English, the ship’s cook, were arrested and indicted for helping the slaves escape. They hired noted education reformer and Massachusetts Congressman Horace Mann as their main attorney. Drayton and Sayres were charged with 77 counts each of aiding a slave to escape and illegally transporting a slave.

A jury convicted both Drayton and Sayres but freed English believing he played no role in the attempted escape. The captain and pilot were given prison sentences because neither could pay their fines and court costs which totaled roughly $10,000. After the men had served four years of their prison sentence, Massachusetts Senator and prominent abolitionist Charles Sumner petitioned President Millard Fillmore for their release. The President pardoned Drayton and Sayres.

The Pearl escape attempt had unexpected consequences. A provision of the Compromise of 1850 enacted by Congress ended the slave trade in the District of Columbia although it did not abolish slavery there. The Pearl incident is also said to have inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe in her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was published in 1852.

The Edmonson Sisters (1832–1895)

Mary Edmonson (1832–1853) and Emily Edmonson (1835–1895) were enslaved African Americans who became prominent in the United States abolitionist movement after gaining their freedom. On April 15, 1848, they were among the 77 slaves who tried to escape from Washington, D.C. to New Jersey on the schooner The Pearl.

The Edmonson sisters were the daughters of Paul and Amelia Edmonson, a free black man and enslaved woman in Montgomery County, Maryland. At the ages of 15 and 13, the sisters were hired out to work as servants in two elite private homes in Washington, D.C. under a lease agreement that required their wages go to their owner.

On April 15, 1848, the sisters and four of their brothers joined 71 other slaves on The Pearl in what was the largest escape attempt by enslaved people in U.S. history. A posse organized by Washington, D.C. area slave owners captured The Pearl on Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout, Maryland, and towed the ship and its cargo back to Washington, D.C.

The Edmonson sisters and the other 75 slaves were sold and sent to New Orleans where their new owners, slave trader partners Bruin & Hill displayed them on an open porch facing the street hoping to attract buyers. A yellow fever epidemic struck New Orleans, forcing Bruin & Hill to send the two girls back to Alexandria, Virginia, to protect their investment.

Paul Edmonson meanwhile continued his campaign to free his daughters. When Bruin & Hill demanded $2,250 for the sisters’ release, Edmonson traveled to New York City and met with members of the American Anti-Slavery Society who told him to take his plea to Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent abolitionist and pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. Edmonson convinced Rev. Beecher and church members to raise funds to purchase the girls and free them.

The Edmonson sisters were emancipated on November 4, 1848. Plymouth Congregational Church continued to contribute money for their education. They were enrolled in the coed and interracial New York Central College in Cortland, New York, in August 1850. While there, they attended the Slave Law Convention in Cazenovia, New York, to protest the proposed Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. There they met Frederick Douglass and were introduced to the abolitionist movement.

The Edmonson sisters continued their education at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1853. Six months after entering Oberlin, Mary Edmonson died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty. Emily Edmonson returned to Washington, D.C. and continued her studies at the Normal School for Colored Girls.

In 1860 Emily Edmonson married Larkin Johnson, and, after living 12 years in Sandy Spring, Maryland, they moved to Washington, D.C., purchasing land in the Anacostia neighborhood in the southeastern section of the city and becoming founding members of the mostly black Hillsdale community. Emily Edmonson maintained her relationship with fellow Anacostia resident Frederick Douglass, and both continued working for African American civil and political rights.

Emily Edmonson died on September 15, 1895, at her home in Anacostia, seven months after the death of her more prominent neighbor, Frederick Douglass.

How Did Slaves Escape?

Our most ambitious video program for the upcoming Civil War exhibition is an interactive in which the visitor takes on the identity of a slave who attempts to escape to freedom and is faced with decisions as to where to go and what to do. The purpose is to replicate a harrowing experience that was endured by many Virginians.

Boston Productions Inc., the video company that we have engaged, is filming footage of the Virginia landscape, hiring and filming actors, and developing a script. One of our jobs—the one addressed in this blog—is to provide factual information about how real slaves actually escaped.

"Slaves Entering Sally Port of Fort Monroe," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861 (Library of Congress)

  • Most slaves didn’t try to escape—new systems of surveillance were in place, failure could bring whipping or even death, families of successful fugitives were abused, rumors had Yankees putting fugitives in irons, sending them off to slavery in Cuba, and committing acts of the “most beastly and infamous character” against slave women.
  • Some slaves in the path of Union armies were “refugeed” to the interior, south or southwest of Richmond, so that they would not be lost by escape or capture. In the interior, chances for liberty diminished.
  • The early Confederate policy of conscripting male slaves to build fortifications along the Chesapeake Bay and near Yorktown provided an opportunity for escape—it brought African Americans near Union-held Fort Monroe and taught them the geography of the region. By 1863, some 10,000 slaves had escaped to freedom there.
  • When George McClellan’s Union army moved up the Peninsula in the spring of 1862, many slaves there seized the opportunity to escape.
  • By early 1863, most slaves east and northeast of Richmond had either been removed or had escaped. Runaways passing through the region encountered an empty landscape.
  • Slaves fled not only to Union lines but also to the woods or swamps—usually to avoid digging entrenchments—and even to the Confederate army (“the soldiers employ runaway negroes to cook for the mess, clean their horses, and so forth”).
  • Fugitives sometimes encountered patrols—local slave patrols sent out in search of them, as well as Confederate and Yankee cavalry units that crossed their paths. Some of the Union patrols—described in documents as “recruiting expedition[s in search of] all Africans, including men, women, and children”—emanated from Yorktown and Norfolk, beginning in 1863.
  • On reaching Union lines, runaways might find employment—as laborers, cooks, teamsters, washerwomen, or nurses. They might work on government-run farms situated on abandoned estates near Hampton and Norfolk. Or they might be turned away by units that had no interest in their welfare. Some Union troops in the Norfolk-Suffolk area even sold slaves back into bondage (“caught hundreds of fugitives and got pay for them”).
  • Tens of thousands of black Virginians escaped to freedom. Six thousand of them served in the Union army, beginning in 1863.

Will you want to try this interactive once it’s installed in the Civil War show? Depending on the decisions you make, the slave either reaches Union lines and (in most cases) freedom or is captured and returned to slavery.

William M. S. Rasmussen is Lead Curator and Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

1825 to 1860

The 550,000 enslaved Black people living in Virginia constituted one third of the state’s population in 1860. Travelers to Virginia were appalled by the system of slavery they saw practiced there. In 1842, the English novelist Charles Dickens wrote of the “gloom and dejection” and “ruin and decay” that he attributed to “this horrible institution.”

A majority of inhabitants in some of Virginia’s eastern counties were held in bondage. In the western counties, rugged terrain made slavery impractical. In 1829, white citizens there demanded representation in a government controlled by easterners with different interests. In 1861, they formed the new state of West Virginia rather than join the Confederacy.

The majority of enslaved men, women, and children provided agricultural labor for their enslavers. Trained craftspeople worked in skilled trades such as coopering, blacksmithing, and carpentry. A smaller group of men and women cooked, cleaned, served meals, and raised the children of the enslaver’s family. On Sundays, enslaved individuals tended to their own gardens and livestock provided by their enslavers, practiced religion, and engaged with family and friends.

Through their families, religion, folklore, and music, as well as more direct forms of resistance, African Americans resisted the debilitating effects of slavery and created a vital culture supportive of human dignity. At the same time, enslaved Black people exerted a profound influence on all aspects of American culture. Language, music, cuisine, and architecture in the United States are all heavily influenced by African traditions and are part of a uniquely American culture.

Slave Religion and Folklore

Throughout slavery and beyond, spirituality and the church served a vital role in Black communities. Religious practices nurtured the soul and fostered pride and identity in the face of the dehumanizing effects of slavery and segregation. Baptist and Methodist ministers preached hope and redemption to enslaved people who fashioned Christian gospels into a communal music of spirituals about salvation, deliverance, and resistance. They also helped preserve African traditions through music, funeral customs, and call-and-response forms of worship. Religious meetings—whether secret gatherings in the woods or church congregations—became crucibles for collective activism.

Enslaved African Americans continued a rich tradition of African parables, proverbs, and legends. Through folklore, they maintained a sense of identity and taught valuable lessons to their children. The central figures were cunning tricksters, often represented as tortoises, spiders, or rabbits, who defeated more powerful enemies through wit and guile, not power and authority.

Music and Food

The musical traditions of enslaved communities merged European practices with intricate rhythm patterns, off-key notes, foot patting, and a strong rhythmic drive. Music was incorporated into religious ceremonies as shouts and “sorrow songs” “field hollers” and work songs helped coordinate group tasks and satirical songs were a form of resistance that commented on the injustices of the slave system.

African Americans adapted Indigenous, European, and African food traditions—such as deep-fat frying, gumbo, and fricassee—to feed their own families as well as those of their enslavers. Pork and corn were the primary rations issued to those who were enslaved, but they were supplemented by plants and animals grown or raised or gathered from nearby rivers and fields.

The Slave Trade and Slave Auction

After an 1808 act of Congress abolished the international slave trade, a domestic trade flourished. Richmond became the largest slave-trading center in the Upper South, and the slave trade was Virginia’s largest industry. It accounted for the sale—and resulting destruction of families and social networks—of as many as two million Black people from Richmond to the Deep South, where the cotton industry provided a market for enslaved labor.

Prices of enslaved people varied widely over time. They rose to a high of about $1,250 during the cotton boom of the late 1830s, fell to below half that level in the 1840s, and rose to about $1,450 in the late 1850s. Males were valued 10 to 20 percent more than females at age ten, children's prices were about half that of a prime male field hand.

The management of an enslaved workforce was a frequent topic of debate among slaveholders. Over time an elaborate system of controls was developed that included the legal system, religion, incentives, physical punishment, and intimidation to keep enslaved people working. None was completely successful.

While slaveholders asserted that their workforce was loyal, they also lived in constant fear of a revolt. White southerners prohibited enslaved African Americans from learning to read, restricted their movement, prevented them from meeting in groups, and publicly punished those who attempted to escape slavery. Slave codes also punished white Virginians who assisted Black people in violating the codes.

Denied their unalienable rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, enslaved Americans were trapped in a cruel and unacceptable lifestyle. Some enslaved Virginians instigated organized, armed rebellion or attempted escape, even though success was unlikely and punishments included execution and disfigurement. Most engaged in day-to-day resistance—breaking equipment, stealing foodstuffs, slowing the work-pace. The most effective resistance was the formation of a distinct culture that perpetuated African American traditions of music, storytelling, and cuisine, and was bolstered by strong religious beliefs.

Travelers to Virginia were appalled by the system of slavery they saw practiced there. In 1842, the English novelist Charles Dickens wrote of the “gloom and dejection” and “ruin and decay” that he attributed to “this horrible institution.” Inevitably, the intolerable abuses caused a number to commit suicide. A few initiated rebellion––the ultimate crisis imagined by the slaveowner.

Gabriel’s Conspiracy, 1800

Gabriel was a literate enslaved blacksmith hired out to work in Richmond by his enslaver, Thomas Prosser of Henrico County. With some freedom of movement, access to others enslaved men, and information about uprisings elsewhere, Gabriel planned a rebellion against slavery in central Virginia. Two enslaved men betrayed the plot. In response, white Virginians arrested and prosecuted more than seventy men for insurrection and conspiracy. Gabriel and twenty-five of his followers were hanged.

The Nat Turner Revolt, 1831

Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher and self-proclaimed prophet, led the bloodiest slave revolt in U.S. history in Southampton County. Over the course of two days in late August 1831, he and his conspirators killed 58 white men, women, and children before government troops quelled the insurrection. The state tried and executed Turner and 19 conspirators. White vigilantes retaliated with violence, resulting in about 40 additional deaths.

The event sent shockwaves throughout the nation and deepened the divide over slavery. Defenders of the institution blamed “Yankee” influence and what they believed was the violent character of Black people. Antislavery factions argued that this revolt demonstrated the corruptive effects of slavery and refuted enslavers’ claims of the “contented” slave.

Turner’s revolt also prompted Virginia’s General Assembly to debate the fate of slavery in its 1831–1832 session. Legislators considered proposals for abolition, but ultimately decided to maintain slavery. They also passed new restrictions on Black Virginians, including requiring Black congregations to be supervised by a white minister, and making it illegal to teach Black people to read. This was the last time a government of a slave state considered ending slavery until the Civil War.

John Brown’s Raid, 1859

Led by the radical abolitionist, John Brown, eighteen whites and five African Americans, seized the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in October 1859. Among them was Dangerfield Newby, a former slave from the Shenandoah Valley. For Newby the cause was deeply personal: his wife and children were still in bondage. After a failed attempt to buy their freedom and fearing their sale to the Deep South, Newby joined Brown’s small army. He was killed on the first day of fighting. Brown’s attempt to take rifles stored there, escape into the mountains, and start a slave revolt failed. Five raiders escaped, ten were killed, and nine—including Brown—were captured and executed. Sectionalist tension heightened as southerners feared additional violence.

The Abolitionist Movement and Manumission in Virginia

A society for promoting abolition was organized by 1790, and publications appeared as early as St. George Tucker’s Dissertation of 1796. The self-criticism and efforts for abolition ended, however, after Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831. From that point forward, most white Virginians approved of the practice, denied its evils, and defended it as a “positive good.”

In 1782, the General Assembly allowed enslavers to free the people they enslaved. Some did. Many of their manumission documents are written with condemnation of “the injustice and criminality” of slavery: “Being fully persuaded that freedom is the Natural Right of all Mankind and that it is my duty to do unto others as I would desire to be done by in the like situation, I hereby Emancipate and set free the said Slave ______.”

The Colonization Movement

The growing number of free Black individuals in Virginia—more than 30,000 in 1810—challenged the assumption that black skin equaled enslavement. Free persons of color also presented what enslavers feared was a dangerous example. These tensions prompted the 1816 creation of the American Colonization Society, devoted to removing free Black Americans to Africa. A number of white Virginians—including James Monroe and John Randolph of Roanoke—joined antislavery northerners in this effort.

The colonization movement was controversial among Black Americans. As New York City’s Colored American newspaper explained, “This Country is Our Only Home. It is our duty and privilege to claim an equal place among the American people.” In 1830, Liberia had only about 1,400 settlers. Ultimately, 15,000 Black people emigrated and—in some ways—patterned their society after the American South.

Column: Why America can't get over slavery, its greatest shame

Savage whipping left the back of this former slave badly disfigured, as shown in this photograph taken after the man escaped during the Civil War to become a soldier in the Union army. (Photo: Associated Press)

Slavery. It is America’s open wound. It is the painful injury that a third of America lives with and the rest of the country attempts to ignore because, for them, it is an ancient scar and, well, hasn’t it healed by now?

Its very name evokes emotions so strong that many Americans demand that we no longer speak of it, while others — those who live with its enduring impact — cry it aloud in hopes that America will finally have the conversation about it that it has refused to have for nearly 400 years.

Slavery’s long legal existence created the American caste system that endures today, one that maintains a false white superiority and black inferiority built on an unfair education system, unfair employment system and social institutions that support this notion while appropriating black language, music and fashion.

No amount of complaint or discrimination has led to a real discussion of slavery and its aftermath — and of what is owed to a people who helped build America. The cost, some say, would be too great.

The long, hard road to King's Resurrection City

MLK's America still a world of trouble

Voices: In the shadow of King's mountaintop

“There are two reasons that we don’t talk about slavery: The first is it’s a subject that makes us have to face the ugliness of our history against the beauty of American history,” says Michael Simanga, adjunct professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University. “It forces us to then commit to structural changes that the country has not yet gotten ready to address, changes having to do with discriminatory practices — an unequal education system, unequal employment, unequal housing and how we teach our history without including all Americans.”

Talking about slavery “would require us to embrace a completely different American narrative,” he said, “and we’re not ready to let go of the old one.”

The unheld conversation is woven into the fabric of 1968, arguably one of the most important years in history as far as race and slavery are concerned. That is the year the British Parliament passed the Race Relations Act making it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to a person on the grounds of color, race, ethnic or national origins — and created a Community Relations Commission to promote “harmonious community relations.”

America did neither, instead passing, over time, a series of civil rights laws that do not mention race in their titles and that black Americans still must fight to get the government to enforce.

Our rules, our policies, our attempts at equality have all been just a series of poor attempts to hide the origin of this country’s poor race relations when the world knows that origin was slavery.

Why don’t we talk about it? Because talking about it makes it real, makes it impossible to ignore.

There are still people in America who believe that slavery was a gift to African Americans and that two and half centuries of horror were a small price to pay to escape Africa — a continent they feel was so much worse that slaves’ descendants should be honored by the capture. Because there is no education about slavery in America’s public schools, there has been no discussion about what the massive residential theft did to Africa or what centuries of maltreatment did to generations of African Americans.

America is defined by continuing injustice rooted in slavery. The lack of education and conversation about it constitute a deficit that shackles our country. It makes America fertile ground for myth and revisionism that attempt to teach schoolchildren that slaves were just immigrant workers, sharecroppers who tended land in exchange for a place to live. The unmentioned rape and torture and maiming and poor nourishment and killings — and even the legally maintained ban on slaves learning to read — were all just minor inconveniences.

Every attempt to discuss some recompense for those years of horror is met, mostly, with outrage by white Americans who say, “It wasn’t me.”

The quiet beginning of the slave trade in the United States is pictured in this undated engraving. The setting is Jamestown, Va., where in 1619 the captain of a Dutch ship traded 20 Africans for food in a deal with John Rolfe and other settlers. The Africans probably had been hi-jacked from a Spanish vessel. The 20 slaves were to grow to more than 15 million Africans imported and enslaved before the trade was stopped. (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

And by rights, that means it was all of us who continue to pretend that it didn’t happen and do not face that something must be done to repair it, or America’s problems with race will never go away.

Slavery endures in a legal system that allows black voter suppression and housing restrictions and education policies that continue to make life harder for blacks than whites in America.

Slavery endures in an injustice system that continues to jail more black men than white people for the same crimes.

And slavery will endure a little more than a year from now when we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Jamestown, Va.

Those slaves’ arrival in 1619, according to historical accounts, was described in a letter by John Rolfe, whom schoolchildren are taught was the husband of Pocahontas but who is rarely mentioned for his eyewitness account of the birth of the transatlantic slave trade to the United States. He wrote in a letter to Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the Virginia Company of London, of the arrival of “20. and odd Negroes.” These kidnapped people were purchased to be used as involuntary laborers, sold after making a voyage they didn’t plan that lasted usually six to 13 weeks, chained in the bowels of ships they’d never seen.

Virginia’s first Africans, according to various historical accounts and a 2006 Washington Post analysis, spoke the Bantu languages Kimbundu and Kikongo and were believed to be from the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, regions of modern-day Angola and coastal regions of Congo. They joined 15 black men and 17 black women already “in the service” of Jamestown planters.

One of the greatest — and most often cited — deterrents to having a discussion about slavery is that slavery wasn’t just America’s problem. It was recognized as early as 6800 B.C., according to various research projects, when enemies of war were enslaved in Mesopotamia, or 1000, when slavery was routine in England’s rural, agricultural economy, or 1444, when Portuguese traders brought slaves from West Africa to Europe.

But citing slavery’s historical existence does not change America’s participation in it. Massachusetts became the first British colony to legalize slavery in 1641. One hundred and 35 years later, when the country’s forefathers declared independence, they did it knowing they were not declaring it for all Americans — and most did not care.

There was even widespread belief that the historic election of 2008 signaled an end to America’s race relations problem, and some believed it would open the door to a national discussion of slavery — and possible reparations for it.

Henry Louis Gates, the noted Harvard historian, wrote in a 2010 New York Times opinion article that “thanks to an unlikely confluence of history and genetics — the fact that he is African American and president — Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage.”

But such a task was not high on Obama’s gargantuan list of missions, and America would not deal with the nation’s greatest shame during his tenure.

That has been the sad fact of slavery. Conversations begin and end with who was responsible — and as long as the blame game continues, no real conversations happen.

Meanwhile, slavery remains, as Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion put it in a September 2015 Slate analysis, “a massive institution that shaped and defined the political economy of colonial America, and later, the United States” … an “institution (that) left a profound legacy for the descendants of enslaved Africans, who even after emancipation were subject to almost a century of violence, disenfranchisement, and pervasive oppression, with social, economic, and cultural effects that persist to the present.”

Slavery remains the subject of a conversation that only one side wants to have and the other side continues to put off, decade after decade after decade.

Rochelle Riley is a columnist at the Detroit Free Press and author of “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery” (Wayne State University Press, February 2018).


Early settlers of property tended to recreate the familiar structures of eastern Virginia, building Georgian and Federal homes on large estates. The counties of the eastern panhandle, especially Jefferson and Berkeley, were the most reminiscent of eastern Virginia. Many prominent families, such as the Washingtons, Fairfaxes, and Lees, had properties here. In 1817 Col. John Fairfax of Preston County began the construction of his mansion, Fairfax Manor, with the aid of his sons and 30 slaves. The old log homes on the estate, formerly the residences of Col. Fairfax and his family, became the slave quarters. [2] In 1836 David Gibson began construction of Sycamore Dale in Romney, Hampshire County, with the aid of 100 slaves.

News of Ebenezer Zane's settlement near present-day Wheeling and the prospect of cheap and fertile land drew new settlers from as far away as New England. They would sometimes purchase slaves in Maryland and northern Virginia on their way to the Kanawha and Ohio River valleys. Large clearing of lands began after 1790. New settlers also moved into these areas from eastern Virginia and North Carolina. [3] In the early 19th century new settlers on their way to the Missouri territory would pass through the Kanawha Valley to the Ohio River and often remained there, attracted by the low cost of land and money made by leasing their slaves to the local saltmakers. [4]

In 1800 Harman Blennerhassett built a large Palladian home on Belpre Island, now called Blennerhassett Island, on the Ohio River near Parkersburg. [5] Similar structures and accompanying slaves soon spread along the Ohio River up to the northern panhandle. [6] In 1814 Zadok Cramer wrote of his travels on the Ohio River in the Western Gleaner-"There is a plain contrast between the different sides of the river, arising from slavery being forbid on one, and tolerated on the other . On the Virginia side, there were some good houses at remote distances from each other but accompanied by the negro quarters. On the other side neat cottages and comfortable cabins were to be seen at every little remove along the river . " [7]

Wheeling was the largest city in western Virginia and the fourth largest city in Virginia, poised northward between Ohio and Pennsylvania. The number of slaves in the northern panhandle was comparatively small, by 1850 the 4 counties had 247 slaves. One of West Virginia's northernmost plantations was Shepherd Hall, a Federal house built in 1798 by Moses Shepherd, [8] which had slave quarters, its own mill and tannery. In her visit to the United States in 1829, Frances Trollope found in Wheeling "all that sedulous attention which in this country distinguishes a slave state.". [9] The Wheeling newspapers criticized the activities of Ohio humane societies and their support for runaway slaves. [10] The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, until purchased by Republican Archibald Campbell in 1856, routinely printed articles defending slavery and attacking abolitionism. [11] After his acquisition of the paper Campbell printed moderate attacks on slavery, keeping just short of breaking Virginia's laws restricting abolition propaganda. Wheeling's most noted writer of the period, Rebecca Harding Davis, explained Wheeling's unusual position-"We occupied the place of Hawthorne's unfortunate man who saw both sides." [12]

Wheeling became a major regional hub for hiring or selling slaves to the local salt industry and to markets in the lower south. [13] Weekly slave auctions were held there and also in Charleston. When slaves were part of an estate, auctions were usually held at the county courthouse. [14] In 1835 a large auction was held in Charlestown, Jefferson County. One male slave sold for $1200, a woman and four children for $1950, [15] the modern equivalent of $30,000 and $49,000 respectively. Although slave owners were a minority in West Virginia, they owned a higher proportion of land and wealth and often held public office in the county and state, where they could adapt public policy to their interests. [16]

By 1860 the use of slave labor in West Virginia was about 48% in agriculture, 16% in commerce, 21% in industry and 15% in mixed occupations. [17]

Farming in West Virginia produced about twice as much grain and livestock than was needed for subsistence, with one in ten farm workers being a slave. [18] Women worked in the fields along with the men, sometimes acting as drovers, supervisors and performing general maintenance, such as cutting fence rails. Rather than depending on overseers, tasks would be assigned for daily or weekly completion. [19] Most slaves engaged in agriculture were to be found on farms with less than 10 slaves, where the owners often worked in the fields as well. In wealthier households slaves would be used for domestic duties and as servants. [20]

Salt was one of the first exports from West Virginia. By 1828 sixty-five wells along the Kanawha River produced 787,000 bushels of salt per year, and by 1835 the industry used the labor of nearly 3,000 men, mostly slaves. Much of Charleston's growth was a result of this resource. By 1852 a yearly fleet of 400 flatboats moved three million bushels of salt to markets south and midwest. The growth of the salt industry also resulted in exploitation of lumber, coal and gas resources, with increased use of slave labor. By 1860, however, salt production was in decline, with only 14 wells located in the counties of Kanawha, Mason, Marion and Mercer. Kanawha County wells used 63% of all male and 29% of all female slaves in the county. Slaves could be hired for half the cost of free workers, and required less supervision. [21] Living conditions for the slaves were unsanitary, and outbreaks of cholera often occurred. In 1844 one hundred slaves died over a three-month period from cholera. [22] The actual number of slaves in the Kanwaha Valley exceeded the stated census numbers due to the shifting population of hired slaves in the salt industry. [23]

Coal was used to fuel the salt furnaces of the Kanawha Valley, and by 1860 twenty-five companies were engaged in coal mining in West Virginia, the largest being the Winifrede Mining and Manufacturing Company. These companies advertised for hired slaves at $120 to $200 a year. Women and children were also employed in the mines. Approximately 2000 slaves were employed in coal mining. A system of slides, tramways and rail moved the coal to barges for export to Louisville, Cincinnati and the lower south. [24]

By 1860 West Virginia had 14 iron plantations. One of the largest was Ice's Ferry Iron Works in Monongalia County. At its peak, between 1838 and 1848, Ice's Ferry Iron Works employed 1,700 slave and free workers. [25] These facilities often occupied from one-quarter to one-third of the land in their home counties, averaging about 12,000 acres (49 km 2 ). Slave labor made up about 75% of the work force. [26]

The mineral springs of southern West Virginia were favored destinations of vacationing southern society and drew visitors from as far away as Louisiana and the Gulf States. Presidents of the United States, Supreme Court justices, and politicians such as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster met and socialized here. Periodicals such as Debow's Review urged southerners to take advantage of their highlands for their recreation instead of the annual migrations north. Richmond slave exchanges recruited workers for the resorts and springs. The "Old White" at White Sulphur Springs in Greenbrier County valued its holdings at $100,000 in real estate and $56,000 in slaves. At the Old White one traveller wrote of three slaves who played at the nightly dances, using a fiddle, tambourine, and the skull of an ass. [27] Another visitor described her view behind the scenes at the Old White thus: "In the various departments we found admirable system, healthy, likely slaves all employed yet evidently not overworked or oppressed—a corps of subordinates having their duties so arranged, that they relieved each other in quick succession whenever the work was severe. Whether the perfection of the management arises from perseverance in method, or efficient servants, the result is certainly admirable." [28]

Sweet Springs in Monroe County had buildings designed by William B. Phillips, who had assisted Thomas Jefferson in the building of the University of Virginia. Frame structures were provided for slaves and livery. It was one of the oldest resorts in West Virginia, the first hotel having been built there in 1792. [29] The hotel was forbidden from selling strong drink to any freedman or slave. [30] Other popular resorts and spas during the era of slavery were Salt Sulphur Springs, Red Sulphur Springs, Shannondale Springs, Berkeley Springs, Blue Sulphur Springs, and Capon Springs.

Slaves were used on waterways and overland in the transportation of West Virginia products, livestock, salt, grain, tobacco, lumber and coal. Several times a year fleets of flatboats left Charleston, manned by both slave and free workmen, to markets in Cincinnati and New Orleans. [31] The B&O Railroad hired and bought West Virginia slaves to work in construction gangs and in passenger service. [32] Slaves were sometimes used in the operation of retail stores. In some towns, like Martinsburg, the black population could reach nearly one-third the total residents., [33] while in Charleston it was just over one-fourth the population, with only a few of that number being freedmen. [34]

Slave population in West Virginia
Year Population [35]
1820 15,178
1830 17,673
1840 18,488
1850 20,428
1860 18,371

Western Virginia's slave population peaked in 1850 with 20,428 slaves, or nearly 7% of the population. In 1860 the number of slaves was 18,371. [36] [ full citation needed ] Much of the decreased number of slaves in West Virginia was due to the high demand for slaves in the lower South. The opening of Cherokee lands in north Georgia and Alabama resulted in the growth of cotton and tobacco production, and the slave population there nearly tripled from 1840 to 1860. [37] Slave "coffles" became frequent sights in West Virginia. These were groups of slaves, usually bound together by rope, that were moved mostly overland to markets in the lower south. Often the slaves were not told of their destination for fear of runaways or resistance. [14] [38] With the increasing value of slaves in the 1840s and 1850s slaves were sometimes kidnapped to be resold. [39]

The 1860 U.S. Census counted 3,605 slaveowners in West Virginia. Of this number 2,572 (71%) owned 5 or less. These owners accounted for 33% of the total number of slaves. In 15 counties there was a total of 92 owners of 20 or more slaves. The greatest numbers of slaves occurred in the counties of Jefferson (3,960), Kanawha (2,184), Berkeley (1,650), Greenbrier (1,525), Hampshire (1,213), Monroe (1,114), and Hardy (1,073). There were also 2,773 freedmen living in West Virginia.

There was no organized anti-slavery movement in West Virginia as there was in Kentucky, Maryland or Delaware, and few abolitionists. [40] Resistance to slavery was usually due to religious affiliation or based on economic principles. [41] In some communities of immigrant settlers, such as the Germans, anti-slavery sentiment was dominant. [42] Some West Virginia anti-slavery sentiment was politically based, due to slaveholders using the institution to gain unequal representation in the General Assembly and tax advantages.

In 1831, after Nat Turner's slave rebellion, the General Assembly of 1831–32 was challenged to find solutions to the growing problems of slavery. Some proposed immediate emancipation, some gradual emancipation and deportation, while others preferred the status quo. Thomas Jefferson Randolph proposed a gradual emancipation, and George W. Summers of Kanawha County proposed funding the project from the sale of public lands, but the General Assembly adjourned without taking any action. [43] [44]

In 1844 the Methodist Church became divided over the ownership of slaves by its ministers. A line was drawn west from Lynchburg, north of which slave ownership was forbidden. This would have included most of West Virginia. However, many Methodist churches in West Virginia refused to follow this decision. [45] The Western Virginia Conference of the Methodist church at their meeting in March, 1861, resolved to "utterly condemn any attempt to interfere with the legal relation of master and servant . ". [46] In Marion county a congregation urged the church to "send among us only such ministers as have wisdom and grace enough to enable them to preach the gospel without meddling with our civil institutions." [47] A similar split occurred in the Baptist denomination within West Virginia.

Henry Ruffner of Lexington, Virginia, was a professor at Washington College and its president from 1836 to 1848. His father owned land and slaves in the Kanawha Valley, and he had attended school in Shepherdstown and was a slave owner himself. [48] In 1847 he published a pamphlet, An Address to the People of West Virginia, often called the "Ruffner pamphlet", which was the result of a speech he gave in Lexington at the Franklin Society. He advocated an end to slavery in the west for economic and social reasons, believing that slavery retarded development and growth. [49]

In the 1840s the recently formed abolitionist Liberty Party attempted to attract Virginians to their cause and did draw some members from western Virginia. [50] The advocacy of abolitionism however also brought about violent reactions from pro-slavery Virginians. From 1840 through the 1850s most of the notable mob actions against abolitionists in Virginia took place in western Virginia. In 1839 a mob from Guyandotte crossed the Ohio River and kidnapped a man in order to tar and feather him. In 1854 West Virginians again crossed the river to Quaker Bottom (now Proctorville) to beat abolitionists. [51]

The 1850–51 Constitutional Convention in Richmond addressed many of the complaints of West Virginians, and finally gave the vote to all male residents 21 years of age, and representation in the House of Delegates of the General Assembly based on the white population from the census of 1850. Representation in the Senate however was arbitrarily determined, the east getting 30 senators and the west 20. The slaveholders also gave themselves a tax advantage, slaves under 12 years of age were not taxed, while older slaves were only taxed at a value of $300. Despite these inequities, the new constitution was opposed only by a few counties in the east. [52]

In 1856 Massachusetts abolitionist Eli Thayer was looking for property in the south where he could establish a working colony free of slavery. He finally settled on Wayne County and built the village of Ceredo. He faced severe opposition to his colony by U.S. Congressman Albert G. Jenkins, himself the owner of Green Bottom Plantation in nearby Cabell County with its 30-some slaves. [53]

At first the new settlement was welcomed, but after John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 local residents became hostile to the Ceredo colony. [54] During the war Ceredo became a focus of Unionism and raised Union militia. This made it a favorite target for local Confederate raiders like William "Rebel Bill" Smith and by the end of the war Ceredo was almost abandoned.

At times slaveowners freed some or all of their slaves as part of their estate. In eastern Virginia in 1848 John Warwick of Amherst County, and Frances Eppes of Henrico County freed all of their slaves in their estates. In western Virginia Sampson Sanders of Cabell County freed his slaves on his death in 1849. [55] Due to a Virginia law that required manumitted slaves to leave the state within one year of freedom, most of the estates provided funds for the equipment and settling of the freedmen in other states. [56] When Sanders' will was made the former slaves were to be resettled in Indiana, but Indiana had since passed a law forbidding the immigration of freedmen. Mr. Sanders' executors instead settled the newly freed slaves in Cass County, Michigan. [57]

A freedman could apply to the General Assembly or the county court for permission to remain in Virginia. The life of a freedman was often perilous, with the prospect of re-enslavement a constant hazard. A freedman could be enslaved for infractions of the law, debt or vagrancy. In Monroe County in 1829 the sheriff was ordered to sell into slavery eight freedmen for failure to pay their taxes. [30] Freedmen were also required to carry their papers as proof of their status and failure to do so could result in a fine or imprisonment. Any slave who was away from his owner's property was required to carry a written pass as slave patrols were on the lookout for runaways or unsupervised slaves. [58]

The American Colonization Society was active from late 1816 to the end of the Civil War, their goal being the establishment of an African republic where former slaves could experience a freedom not available to them anywhere in the United States. Slaveowners wanted to get rid of freedmen, free blacks, because they were disruptive to the slave system, encouraging and facilitating escapes. Even among some abolitionists in the North freedman were seen as incompatible to their vision of American society. [ citation needed ] [ why? ]

While the idea of "returning Blacks to Africa" had an abstract appeal, it was overwhelmingly opposed by the Black population, who said they were no more African than white Americans were British. (See American Colonization Society#Opposition from blacks.) Because of poor funding and lack of ships (it was remarked that the entire U.S. Navy would not have been sufficient) only a handful of former slaves reached Liberia: in the case of West Virginia, with 18,000 enslaved according to the 1860 Census, in some 25 years only 184 West Virginian blacks emigrated to the future Liberia. As Gerrit Smith observed, the colonization project was nothing more than a ruse to give the impression that "the solution" to American slavery was being implemented. According to Smith, the goal of the Anerican Colonization Society was to preserve slavery, not abolish it. (See American Colonization Society#Gerrit Smith.)

History of emigration to Liberia from West Virginia Edit

The first emigrants to Liberia from West Virginia were from Berkeley county. Isaac Stubblefield, his wife and three children, sailed on the Harriet from Norfolk in 1829. Their emigration was sponsored by Edward Colston, nephew of Chief Justice John Marshall, who himself was president of the Virginia Colonization Society. In the 1830s the women of the Washington-Blackburn families of Jefferson county gathered a group of freed people for emigration to Liberia, uniting some families for the purpose and collecting donations for supplies and goods for the emigrants. A young divinity student, A.H. Lamon, accompanied the families to Washington, D.C. There Mr. Lamon also met another group of emigrants from Hardy county, who were being sponsored by the Vanmeter family. Starting Cin 1830 Ann, Susan, and Rebecca Vanmeter and their sister Hannah Vanmeter Hopewell, sponsored two groups totalling thirteen freed slaves.

John Augustine Washington and his wife Jane Blackburn Washington owned two plantations, Mount Vernon and Blakeley. Jane Washington emancipated Lewis Wiggins, Charles Starkes, and their families, who left for Liberia in 1849. In her will she emancipated another of Charles Starkes family who was also sent to Liberia in 1854.

In 1836, William Johnson of Tyler county attempted to transport 12 freedpersons to Liberia, but lacked the connections and wealth of the Blackburn and Washington families. The Society issued an appeal for funds, donations were received from colonizationists in Wheeling and other friends and family. He accompanied the new emigrants to Washington, D.C., and then to Norfolk, where they embarked on the Saluda for Liberia in 1840.

In 1833 and again in 1850 bills were passed by the Virginia legislature to encourage free black emigration to Liberia. The funds were not available however to newly manumitted slaves as the legislature had no wish to encourage emancipation. The bill was partially funded by a yearly tax of one dollar on all male free blacks between 21 and 55 years of age.

A census of Liberia was conducted in 1843 and few of the early emigrants from West Virginia were listed. The landscape and climate were alien to the new settlers, and malaria took a heavy toll on the population. Jacob Snyder, an elderly man from Jefferson county, believed that he could beat the fever by "starving" it, but succumbed to starvation after not eating or drinking for nine days after his arrival. Judith Blackburn was dismayed by the first reports written to her from the former slaves, who described a hostile environment with a high death rate due to malaria.

The late 1850s saw the last groups of emigrants leaving for Liberia from West Virginia. Samson Caesar, a Liberian from West Virginia who had left Buckhannon in 1834, despaired for the future of Liberia, blaming the United States for the lack of education and training that had been denied the former slaves. He wrote "I can only Say that if the Coulard man had the Same opportunity with the White man he would not be one Step behind him in no respect."

During this period of expatriation a total of 184 free persons were transported to Liberia. Jefferson county sent 124 people, Berkeley and Hardy counties sent 13 people each, Tyler county sent 12, Hampshire and Randolph counties sent 9 each, and Lewis, Marion, Monroe and Pendleton sent 1 each. [59]

Slaves of lighter complexion sometimes bought passage on the B&O railroad to reach Pittsburgh. Other slaves crossed the narrow panhandle of Maryland on foot to reach Pennsylvania. A large number of free blacks worked with Quakers in this area to facilitate escape. In 1845, Dr. Robert Mitchell of Pennsylvania was sued by Garret van Metre of Hardy County for aiding the escape of his slave Jared. In two trials held in Pittsburgh Mr. van Metre was awarded $500 from Dr. Mitchell for the loss of his slave. [60]

Two routes ran through the Morgantown area to Pennsylvania. One was a trail that led through Mount Morris, Pa. to Greensboro, Pa. The other route left Morgantown and ran parallel to the Monongahela River, going through the town of New Geneva, Pa., to Uniontown. The A.M.E. Zion Church had congregations in both Morgantown and across the border in Fayette County, Pa. [61]

Slaves escaping the interior of West Virginia could follow the Kanawha River to Point Pleasant. From there they could follow the Ohio River north to Parkersburg. Across the river from Parkersburg was the Ohio town of Belpre where a Col. John Stone acted as an agent for the railroad. Fugitives were hidden at Parkersburg by a black woman called "Aunt Jenny" until they could cross the river. In 1847 Wood County plantation owner George Henderson filed suit in Ohio against abolitionist David Putnam of Marietta, Ohio, for the loss of 9 slaves. The suit was eventually dropped in 1853. [62] Other agents for the railroad were an unnamed barber from Jackson, Ohio, who visited Point Pleasant and would help slaves to Portsmouth, Ohio, and a teacher, Rail Cheadle, of Morgan County, Ohio. [63]

Wheeling was an important stop for runaways, standing as it does between Ohio and Pennsylvania. A branch of the railroad ran between Wheeling and Wellsburg, going east to the Pennsylvania towns of Washington or West Middletown. The McKeever family of West Middletown would hide fugitives in their poultry wagon and drive them to Pittsburgh. The A.M.E. Zion Church in Wheeling was also active in aiding slaves to freedom. [64] The proprietor of the Wheeling House Hotel was rumored to find safe houses for runaways. The hotel was next door to the slave auction block. [65]

In 1835 slaveowners in Jefferson County petitioned the General Assembly for redress for the loss of runaway slaves. In response, the General Assembly passed an act incorporating "The Virginia Slave Insurance Company" in Charlestown. [66] The Fugitive Slave Act returned a number of slaves to western Virginia. Just before the Civil War a slave belonging to the Jackson family in Harrison County escaped to Ohio by stealing a horse, but was returned under the act and sold lower south. [67] One of the last slaves ever returned under the act was Sara Lucy Bagby, who had also escaped to Ohio and was restored to her owner in Wheeling on January 24, 1861. [68] Sara Bagby was freed during the war and moved to Pittsburgh. [69] Slaves who ran away and were returned, or at risk of flight, were often sold. In 1856 in Point Pleasant, Mason County, two slaveholders sold their eighteen slaves for $10,600 to a Richmond dealer when it was discovered that they had been planning an escape. [70] A slave owner in Kanwaha County sent his remaining slaves to Natchez for sale after two had run away. [71]

When the Indiana and Ohio state troops under command of Gen. George B. McClellan invaded West Virginia on May 26, 1861, Gen. McClellan issued a proclamation "To the Union Men of Western Virginia" in which he stated "Notwithstanding all that has been said by the traitors to induce you to believe that our advent among you will be signalized by interference with your slaves, understand one thing clearly—not only will we abstain from all such interference, but we will, on the contrary, with an iron hand, crush any attempt at insurrection on their part." [72] Writing in his journal on January 3, 1862 in Fayetteville Col. Rutherford B. Hayes noted, "Nobody in this army thinks of giving to the Rebels their fugitive slaves. Union men might perhaps be differently dealt with-probably would be." [73]

The war provided an opportunity for large numbers of slaves to escape to Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Federal army considered escaped slaves to be contraband, or spoils of war. Some enlisted in the Federal army as part of the United States Colored Troops. Both the Federal and Confederate armies impressed some men into labor gangs, repairing railroads and bridges. Without the support of their spouses or former owners, women and children suffered greatly. Slave families endured depredation not only by raiding Union and Confederate soldiers, but also by partisan guerrillas, who were the most feared as they were the most likely to be violent. Reaching Union-held territory was not a guarantee of freedom, however. A slave named Preston, fleeing from Greenbrier county was arrested and placed in the Mason county jail on June 4, 1862, just by the Ohio river. [74]

The war provided an impetus not only for slaves to escape but also to revolt. On May 27, 1861 in Lewisburg a slave named Reuben was convicted of conspiring "to rebel and make insurrection in said county." Pistols and other weapons were found in his cabin, and the court sentenced him to be hanged. A similar incident occurred in Mecklenburg County on May 21, 1861. [75]

With Union troops securing the northern counties of western Virginia against Confederate defenders a Unionist government in Wheeling, called The Restored Government of Virginia, passed an ordinance for the creation of a new state from the western counties of Virginia. The voters who approved the ordinance on October 24, 1861 also elected members to a convention to write the constitution for the new state. The Constitutional Convention met in Wheeling on November 26, 1861 with 61 members. One of the issues facing them was slavery. Most were hoping that the Federal government would grant statehood without an emancipation clause to the constitution. Although some native Virginians, such as Methodist minister Robert Hagar, favored gradual emancipation, much of the agitation for it came from the non-native delegates such as Gordon Battelle, William E. Stevenson, and Granville Parker. When Gordon Battelle proposed his emancipation clause Granville Parker recalled " I discovered on that occasion as I never had before, the mysterious and over-powering influence 'the peculiar institution' had on men otherwise sane and reliable. Why, when Mr. Battelle submitted his resolutions, a kind of tremor—a holy horror, was visible throughout the house." [76]

The convention, instead of incorporating an emancipation clause into the new constitution, included a clause forbidding freedmen and slaves from entering the new state and hoped this would be enough to satisfy Congress.

1860 Slave Census, 49 (of the 50) Counties of West Virginia
Ages Slaves
<1 354
1-4 1,866
5-9 2,148
10-14 2,072
15-19 1,751
20-29 2,400
30-39 1,589
40-49 1,030
50-59 617
60-69 378
70-79 145
80-89 42
90-99 14
over 100 4
unknown 1

The statehood bill was opposed by Senators Charles Sumner and Benjamin Wade, who insisted on emancipation in some form. On December 31, 1862 President Lincoln signed the West Virginia statehood bill on the condition that the new state provide some type of emancipation. Waitman T. Willey, a Senator of Virginia under the aegis of the Restored Government in Wheeling, composed an emancipation amendment to the constitution to be ratified by public vote on March 26, 1863. It became known as the Willey Amendment.

The Willey Amendment The children of slaves born within the limits of this State after the fourth day of July, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, shall be free and all slaves within this state who shall, at the time aforesaid, be under the age of ten years, shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-one years and all slaves over ten and under twenty-one years shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-five years and no slave shall be permitted to come into the State for permanent residence therin. [77]

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the slaves in rebel territory that was not under Federal control. This exempted the 48 counties named in the statehood bill even though many of those counties were in active rebellion. Two more counties were added to West Virginia later in 1863, Jefferson and Berkeley. Slaves in Berkeley County were also exempted by the proclamation, but not those in Jefferson. Thus, 49 of West Virginia's 50 counties were exempted.

The Willey Amendment freed no slaves on West Virginia becoming a state: the first slaves to be freed would not have been so until 1867. There was no provision for freedom for any slave over 21 years of age. As per the census of 1860 the Willey Amendment would have left at least 40% of West Virginia's slaves unemancipated, over 6,000 slaves. Many of those under 21 would have served as much as 20 years in slavery. The phrasing of the amendment also created a window of two weeks during which the children of slaves born between June 20, 1863 and July 4, 1863, would be born into slavery.

The Willey Amendment was approved by public vote and on April 20, 1863. President Lincoln issued a proclamation that West Virginia had met all requirements and would become a state on June 20, 1863. [78] In anticipation of the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution the Wheeling legislature passed a bill ending slavery in West Virginia on February 3, 1865. Even so, the impact of the legislative emancipation act was not immediately understood. The Clarksburg Weekly National Telegraph was still printing fugitive slave ads in March. [79]

The end of the war and emancipation brought both jubilation and anxiety, many not knowing how to restructure their lives. At emancipation some slaveowners reacted by evicting all former slaves from their properties, others negotiated work contracts or sharecropping arrangements. Since few of these agreements were legally contracted, and the newly freed slaves had little access to the legal system, they were often victimized. Former Kanawha County slave Lizzie Grant explained- "Slavery had not ended, no we just went from slaves to peons . They did free them in one sense of the word, but put them in a whole lot worse shape as they turned them loose to make their own way with nothing to make it with . [W]e mostly had to stay with our [former owners] if we got anything . [W]e were forced to stay on as servants, yes, if we expected to live . [T]hey still made us do just like they wanted to after the war." [80]

In 1866 the state legislature gave blacks the right to testify against whites in court. Before this, they had been allowed to testify only in cases involving black defendants. [81] In 1867 the 14th Amendment was ratified, granting citizenship and the right to due process under the law.

As a Union state West Virginia was exempt from most of the strictures of Reconstruction. The charter which created the Freedmen's Bureau, however, stated their jurisdiction as "all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel States, or from any district of country within the territory embraced in operations of the army." [82]

Schools were established by the Bureau in Harper's Ferry and Martinsburg in September 1865 and others later in Charlestown and Shepherdstown. Except for the school in Martinsburg, the others were met with resistance and harassment. [83]

In 1862 Parkersburg became the first city to have established a school for black children. By 1867 there were two schools in existence, one public school with a white teacher, and a private school run by R.H. Robinson. Some parents preferred the private school, believing the public school to be too sectarian. [84]

Except for the eastern panhandle the Kanawha Valley had the highest number of black residents. When the Bureau visited the area in 1867 it discovered five schools already established by black citizens, several of them by the Rev. Lewis Rice. The Bureau found the quality of teaching to be good but the physical structures very poor. Local school boards refused or sometimes delayed appropriating funds for new buildings. In Brook's Hollow the Bureau provided $300 and black residents $323 for a new schoolhouse. [85]

At White Sulphur Springs in Greenbrier County a local resident donated land for a new building and the Bureau supplied $177.10 for building supplies and black residents raised the rest of the money. In Lewisburg in early 1868 the school board provided a building through the combined efforts of the Bureau and black residents. [86]

The most notable accomplishment of the Freedmen's Bureau was its efforts in the establishment of Storer College in Harper's Ferry. Spurred by a grant from John Storer of Stanford, Maine, which was conditional on matching funds, the Bureau facilitated the appropriation of government buildings in Harper's Ferry and 7 acres (28,000 m 2 ) of land. The Bureau also contributed $18,000 to the establishment of the college. On December 3, 1868 Congress passed a bill transferring the property to the college. [87]

By 1868 the Ku Klux Klan had organized klavens in West Virginia. Lizzie Grant recalled-"There was them KKK's to say that we must do just like our white man tell us, if we did not, they would take the poor helpless negro and beat him up good." [88] In Colliers a white mob broke up a black political meeting, identifying members for later klan discipline. [89] In Harper's Ferry, a crowd stoned a black school and assaulted teachers. [90]

When the state of West Virginia was created from fifty western counties of Virginia in 1863 it was done without the participation of most of its citizens. At the end of the war the Wheeling government found it necessary in order to stay in power to strip former Confederates and supporters of their civil rights- the right to vote, sit on juries, teach, practice law, or hold public office. [91] The introduction of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1869, intended to extend the vote to black male citizens, provided an opportunity for disfranchised whites to regain their rights. Federal judge John Jay Jackson, Jr., whose family had suffered politically under the Wheeling government, [92] ruled that the 15th Amendment applied to all male citizens regardless of color and ordered the arrest of any state registrar who denied a male resident the right to vote. As a result, thousands of Confederate veterans and supporters were enrolled on the voting lists.

By 1871 the Wheeling government had lost power and their state constitution was discarded by a public referendum. A new state constitution was written in 1872 under the chairmanship of Samuel Price, former Confederate Lt. Governor of Virginia. By 1876 seven of the eight successful candidates for state offices, including the governorship, had been in the Confederate army. [93] Francis H. Pierpont, the "Father of West Virginia", lost his seat in the House of Delegates.

Although the new constitution guaranteed blacks the right to vote and hold public office, it provided for separate schooling and forbad the teaching of blacks and whites in the same school. In 1873 the legislature limited jury duty to white males.

After the war, some black West Virginians had organized politically. In June 1868, a group of 60 black Republicans from Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware and West Virginia met in Baltimore. Some of the West Virginia delegates were the Rev. Dudly Asbury, William Thomas, and George Trother. They met again in Baltimore in August as the Colored Border State Convention, and West Virginian Adam Howard was chosen as one of the vice-presidents. The convention issued a call for a national convention to meet in January to discuss enfranchisement. At the Union League Hall in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 1869 the National Convention of Colored Men convened with over 200 members, including Frederick Douglass. The emphasis was on gaining the vote, though issues of work, housing and education were all discussed. The convention helped focus Congressional attention on the 15th Amendment, which became law in 1870. [91]

In 1879, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Strauder v. West Virginia that the state had "failed to permit blacks the right to serve as jurors along with its other obligations in qualifying them for citizenship." [91]

Issues concerning slavery continued to surface in legal cases after the end of the war. In 1878, a case between Thomas L. Feamster and James Withrow was taken to the state supreme court concerning slaves which had been purchased with Confederate currency. [94] In 1909, the state of West Virginia claimed the value of slaves who had been subjected to capital punishment by the Virginia government in a suit involving adjustments of the pre-war Virginia Debt. [95]

The Largest Attempted Slave Escape in American History - HISTORY

"The hour was now come," recalls James Pennington of his escape from slavery, "and the man must act and be free, or remain a slave for ever . . . if I did not meet the crisis that day, I should be self-doomed." Self-doomed . . . yet many slaves knew well that a failed escape risked doom. "No use running from bad to worse," advised Martin Jackson's father, adding that "the War wasn't going to last forever [and] our forever was going to be spent living among the Southerners, after they got licked." Deciding to run away was a complicated decision with many factors to weigh. Here we look at the individual's decision to run away (or not) and the direct consequences of escape. In the next Theme, COMMUNITY, we will consider the organized aspects of escape including the Underground Railroad and fugitive-aid organizations.

    Virginia runaway ads. Runaway advertisements may seem an unlikely source for insight into runaways' motives and plans, for they are usually boilerplate listings of names, physical descriptions, and rewards offered. In many, however, such as these thirty-five Virginia ads in the 1700s, the slaveholders reveal much about the runaways' intentions and potential success, either directly ("he is so ingenious a fellow, that he can turn his hand to anything") or indirectly ("he has been much whipped, which his Back will show"). What common traits do you find among the fugitives? When do several slaves escape together? Included are the escape and capture notices of two fugitives: why might their attempts have failed?

  1. What factors complicated a person's decision to flee slavery?
  2. When and how did they take family members with them?
  3. Why did some fugitives return willingly to their plantations?
  4. Enumerate the instances of courage, quick-thinking, aid, and luck that influenced the successful escapes.
  5. What factors led to failed escapes?
  6. Why did some enslaved persons choose not to attempt an escape (or a second escape)?
  7. How do successful runaway slaves describe their lives in freedom (before 1865)? What challenges remained?
  8. What acts (and attitudes) of slave resistance are represented in the runaway advertisements?
  9. In the ads, how do the slaveholders exhibit a veiled respect for their runaway slaves?
  10. What attitudes toward slavery in general emanate from the slaveholders' ads for runaways?
  11. Why does Anthony Chase take the unusual step of writing a letter to explain his escape?
  12. Why does he insist that his wife is innocent in his escape?
  13. Why do you think Jeremiah Hoffman send money to Chase's owner to compensate her for loss of property?
  14. Compare the narratives of John Little and his wife, especially on the details of their escape and on their lives as farmers in Canada. What does each emphasize? Why?
  15. Compare the Littles' narratives with that of William Wells Brown, both published before the Civil War. Analyze the similarities and differences in their escapes, the audience for their published memories, and their attitudes toward life as free people.
  16. Why is the selection of a new name so important to William Wells Brown after his escape? Why does he choose "Wells Brown"? Why does he keep "William"?
  17. Compare the nineteenth- and twentieth-century narratives. Consider tone, audience, time span between enslavement and narrative, attitude toward their former slaveholders, and their judgment of their own lives as former slaves and later freemen.
  18. Determine the range of attitudes toward running away voiced by the African Americans interviewed in the 1930s. What might explain this range of attitudes, which does not appear in the nineteenth-century narratives?
  19. Select of pair of runaway slaves below, and compose an imaginary dialogue between them. Choose a theme for the dialogue (goals for escape, backup plan if caught, message to the twenty-first century, etc.). Include the given quotes:
Runaway advertisements: 6
Chase letter: 2
Stills' narratives: 9
W. W. Brown narrative: 7
WPA narratives: 7
TOTAL 31 pages

Runaway Journeys, in In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

The Geography of Slavery in Virginia: 4,000 advertisements for runaway slaves and servants, from Tom Costa and the University of Virginia

Follow the Trail to Freedom in the 1850s, interactive map, from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

North American Slave Narratives (18th-19th century), Introduction, Dr. William A. Andrews, UNC-Chapel Hill

Slave narratives, 19th-century, full text in Documenting the American South (UNC-Chapel Hill Library)

  • - William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, 2d. ed., 1849
    - Brown narrative, 1st. ed., 1847
    - Brown narrative, 2d. ed., 1849
  • - A North-side View of Slavery: The Refugee, 1856, by Benjamin Drew interviews with fugitive slaves in Canada, including John Little and his wife
  • - Introduction to the North American Slave Narratives (18th-19th century), by Dr. William A. Andrews, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)


For studies pertaining to the economics of slavery, see particularly Aitken, Hugh, editor. Did Slavery Pay? Readings in the Economics of Black Slavery in the United States. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1971.

Barzel, Yoram. “An Economic Analysis of Slavery.” Journal of Law and Economics 20 (1977): 87-110.

Conrad, Alfred H., and John R. Meyer. The Economics of Slavery and Other Studies. Chicago: Aldine, 1964.

David, Paul A., Herbert G. Gutman, Richard Sutch, Peter Temin, and Gavin Wright. Reckoning with Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976

Fogel , Robert W. Without Consent or Contract. New York: Norton, 1989.

Fogel, Robert W., and Stanley L. Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. New York: Little, Brown, 1974.

Galenson, David W. Traders, Planters, and Slaves: Market Behavior in Early English America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986

Kotlikoff, Laurence. “The Structure of Slave Prices in New Orleans, 1804-1862.” Economic Inquiry 17 (1979): 496-518.

Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch. One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch “Capitalists Without Capital” Agricultural History 62 (1988): 133-160.

Vedder, Richard K. “The Slave Exploitation (Expropriation) Rate.” Explorations in Economic History 12 (1975): 453-57.

Wright, Gavin. The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton, 1978.

Yasuba, Yasukichi. “The Profitability and Viability of Slavery in the U.S.” Economic Studies Quarterly 12 (1961): 60-67.

For accounts of slave trading and sales, see
Bancroft, Frederic. Slave Trading in the Old South. New York: Ungar, 1931. Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

For discussion of the profession of slave catchers, see
Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

To read about slaves in industry and urban areas, see
Dew, Charles B. Slavery in the Antebellum Southern Industries. Bethesda: University Publications of America, 1991.

Goldin, Claudia D. Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820-1860: A Quantitative History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1976.

Starobin, Robert. Industrial Slavery in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

For discussions of masters and overseers, see
Oakes, James. The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Roark, James L. Masters Without Slaves. New York: Norton, 1977.

Scarborough, William K. The Overseer: Plantation Management in the Old South. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1966.

On indentured servitude, see
Galenson, David. “Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis.” Journal of Economic History 44 (1984): 1-26.

Galenson, David. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Grubb, Farley. “Immigrant Servant Labor: Their Occupational and Geographic Distribution in the Late Eighteenth Century Mid-Atlantic Economy.” Social Science History 9 (1985): 249-75.

Menard, Russell R. “From Servants to Slaves: The Transformation of the Chesapeake Labor System.” Southern Studies 16 (1977): 355-90.

On slave law, see
Fede, Andrew. “Legal Protection for Slave Buyers in the U.S. South.” American Journal of Legal History 31 (1987). Finkelman, Paul. An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1981.

Finkelman, Paul. Slavery, Race, and the American Legal System, 1700-1872. New York: Garland, 1988.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. Slavery and the Law. Madison: Madison House, 1997.

Flanigan, Daniel J. The Criminal Law of Slavery and Freedom, 1800-68. New York: Garland, 1987.

Morris, Thomas D., Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Schafer, Judith K. Slavery, The Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Tushnet, Mark V. The American Law of Slavery, 1810-60: Considerations of Humanity and Interest. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Wahl, Jenny B. The Bondsman’s Burden: An Economic Analysis of the Common Law of Southern Slavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Other useful sources include
Berlin, Ira, and Philip D. Morgan, eds. The Slave’s Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas. London: Frank Cass, 1991.

Berlin, Ira, and Philip D. Morgan, eds, Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas. Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Engerman, Stanley, and Eugene Genovese. Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Fehrenbacher, Don. Slavery, Law, and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Franklin, John H. From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Genovese, Eugene D. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South . Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 1989.

Hindus, Michael S. Prison and Plantation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Margo, Robert, and Richard Steckel. “The Heights of American Slaves: New Evidence on Slave Nutrition and Health.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 516-538.

Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. New York: Appleton, 1918.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Steckel, Richard. “Birth Weights and Infant Mortality Among American Slaves.” Explorations in Economic History 23 (1986): 173-98.

Walton, Gary, and Hugh Rockoff. History of the American Economy. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1994, chapter 13.

Whaples, Robert. “Where Is There Consensus among American Economic Historians?” Journal of Economic History 55 (1995): 139-154.