8:41 PM / Saturday June 3, 2023

1 Apr 2013

Delaware’s corridor of courage

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April 1, 2013 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Cantwell’s Tavern


By Renée S. Gordon


“Thou hast left me a dollar, but I wish to say to thee, and all in the courtroom, that if anyone knows of a fugitive who wants a shelter and a friend, send him to Thomas Garrett.”


The course of both slavery and abolitionism in Delaware was directed largely by three factors, its geographical position as a border state, the fact that no labor-intensive year round crop flourished there and the religious influence of the Methodists and the Quakers. There were never the large plantations, or numbers of enslaved, that developed deeper south, the largest owner having less than 70 enslaved workers. A single slave arrived in 1639, “Black” Anthony, the first black documented resident, aboard the Vogel Grip. At some point he was freed and by 1648 he was serving as the assistant of Gov. Johan Printz. By 1750, the number increased to 1,000 and on the eve of the American Revolution there were 2,000.  The 1779 federal census records 8,887 slaves and 3,899 free blacks. Immediately prior to the Civil War there were less than 2,000 slaves and 19,829 free blacks in the state. 


Though the number of slaves was initially small the first sign of alarm at the increase was sounded in 1700 when the “Act for the Trial of Negroes” was enacted placing severe restrictions on behavior and outlining harsh punishments for violations. In 1776 a law was passed that prohibited the sale of a Delaware slave out of state and banned their import into the state making Delaware the first state to attempt to limit the trade.   


Delaware’s Harriet Tubman Byway Underground Railroad route (UGRR) is often referred to as a “corridor of courage” as indeed it was for both those who assisted freedom seekers and the freedom seekers themselves. Traveling the basically south to north UGRR’s 150-mile Eastern Route begins at Maryland’s Eastern Shore address into Delaware through Camden, Odessa, Dover, Middleton, New Castle, Wilmington before ending in Philadelphia. Modern travelers can follow this route and despite many of the sites being extant, you can visit and view a total of 14 sites that figured prominently in UGRR history.


The tiny city of Camden was originally a 112-acre Quaker colony founded in 1789 on the property of Daniel Mifflin. His brother Warner is credited as the inspiration for the manumission of many of the state’s early slaves when he was the first to free his slaves in 1794. Warner was Delaware’s delegate to the first convention of the Abolition Societies of the United States held on January 1st in that same year.

In 1804 residents built the Camden Friends Meeting House on land donated by the Hunn family. They were known as both early abolitionists and philanthropists. The interior of the meetinghouse has several notable features. There is a wooden panel at the rear that could be lowered to allow any overflow attendees to sit on the stairs and participate. A school was located on the second floor and some of the furnishings are original. 


John Hunn, referred to as the chief engineer of Delaware’s UGRR, was caught with escaping slaves and, after a full assessment of his holdings, was fined to the last penny. Little documentation remains of his work because his deathbed wish was for all his papers to be burned. He is buried in the adjacent graveyard. Great Geneva, Hunn’s childhood home, and Wildcat Manor, the family property, remain standing under private ownership.


Dover, Delaware, 62 miles out from Philadelphia, was a very important area on the journey and has one of the premier sites in the state. Woodburn, the official governor’s residence since 1965, was constructed in the 1790s by Quaker Charles Hillyard III. In the 1840s and 50s the Georgian house was a station on the UGRR during the ownership of Daniel Cogwell. It is believed to have been the largest stop in the nation. Fugitives were hidden throughout the house and were treated as family members.


The John Dickinson Plantation provides an outstanding overview of colonial and revolutionary Delaware as well as an orientation to plantation life, the institution of slavery and the people involved in the struggle against it. Costumed guides tell these stories as visitors tour the mansion and grounds. 


Samuel Dickinson built the original brick three-story Georgian house in 1740. In 1760 John inherited the house, 5,000-acres and between 30 and 60 slaves. In 1777 John conditionally freed his slaves, they had to learn to read and write, and in 1785 he unconditionally freed them. “A World Apart,” an interactive group tour interprets the lives of the free and enslaved African Americans and indentures. Admission is free.


The house burned in 1804 and with one of the country’s first insurance policies was reconstructed. The roofline was altered and the rebuilt house had only two-stories. Tours of the interior showcase original doors, Caesar Rodney’s desk and 18th-century original furnishings. Several rooms feature wax figures of the enslaved. Exterior tours include a log, one -room, cabin of the type inhabited by slaves, indentures and the poor of the era.


John Dickinson is recognized as the “Penman of the Revolution” because he helped write the first draft of the “Articles of the Confederation.” He was also a signer of the “U. S. Constitution.” Dickinson College is named in his honor.


Delaware’s three lower counties were considered part of Pennsylvania until June 15, 1776 when Delaware became a separate state. As part of PA, William Penn left plans for The Dover Green in 1683. The plans were carried out in 1717 and the result, 296-years later, is the Green within a 16-site First State Heritage Park. Since 1777 the area has been the site of state government featuring the State Capitol and the State Supreme Court.


The Georgian first permanent state capitol was erected in 1791 and functioned until 1933. The Old State House tour is a wonderful combination of guided tour and re-enactments. On the second level visitors can view the House of Representatives with a public gallery. In this space emancipation legislation was defeated in both 1803 and 1847. In 1862 Lincoln decided to test his plan to pay slaveowners for freeing their slaves in Delaware. He was going to pay $500 per slave, more than the going rate, to end the Civil War. They refused to even bring it to a vote. Delaware did not ratify the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments until 1901.


In the courtroom on the first floor interpreters relate stories of how legislation affected blacks in general and relate the story of Samuel Burris a free black conductor caught in the act. He was sentenced to be fined, confined and upon completion of his sentence enslaved and sent south. While serving his sentence he wrote to abolitionists for assistance to no avail. His sale took place on the Dover Green. He was purchased and tossed in a wagon for the journey. After a few miles his new owner stopped, freed him and told him that the abolitionists had heard his pleas and he was now free. Burris moved to California and never returned to Delaware.


Adjacent to the Old State House is the Supreme Court building, once the home of the Chew family. They owned 63 slaves and were the largest owners in the state.


The Dover Jail was once located on the Green. It was here that eight freedom seekers were lured and nearly captured. They made a successful escape and two later joined John Brown’s forces.


Historic Odessa is the site of two buildings on the UGRR Network to Freedom. The village was once a river port known as Cantwell’s Bridge but was renamed after a Ukrainian port city. This tiny jewel is a historic district with five distinctive structures.


An UGRR tour begins in the visitor center with an eight minute orientation film and proceeds to the 1774 Philadelphia Georgian Corbit-Sharp House. The history of area slavery and abolitionism is recounted in an authentic muskrat-skinning shed filled with artifacts, displays and facsimiles. Inside the house visitors can climb to the attic and view the documented hiding place where the family hid a slave. Also in the attic is the premier artifact on display: a 1750 Bible that belonged to the Coates family of Culpepper, Virginia. Written on the pages of the Bible are slave lists. Fifty percent of the furnishings are family pieces.


Cantwell’s Tavern, in what was the 1822 Brick Hotel, is a wonderful place to stop for lunch. The food and service are outstanding.


The Appoquinimink Friends Meetinghouse is said to be the smallest in the country. The red brick, 20-ft sq. structure was built in 1793 by David Wilson and gifted to the community. It is believed the fugitives were hidden in the loft and that Harriett Tubman stopped there.


Thomas Garrett’s trial was held in the New Castle Courthouse and his story is interpreted there. Garrett was accused of stealing the Hawkins family and was fined his entire fortune.


The first courthouse was constructed in 1689, this one dates from 1732, and the court replicates a colonial English courtroom on the first level. On the second floor there is a permanent display on slavery in Delaware and a life-sized diorama of the incarcerated Harris family awaiting trial. The history of Delaware is traced here through portraits, paintings and a model of the original fort.


Thomas Garrett, the “Stationmaster of the Underground Railroad,” was one of the most important figures in the history of the UGRR. Born in Philadelphia in 1789, Garret Road is named in his honor, he moved to Wilmington in 1822. He worked tirelessly in the cause of abolition for 38 years and assisted 2,700 freedom seekers. Upon his death in 1871 African Americans attended his funeral in record numbers and bore his coffin to the gravesite at the Wilmington Friends Meetinghouse. 


The original Wilmington Friends Meetinghouse was erected in 1738, followed by a larger structure in 1748, on Quaker Hill. The current building was erected in 1816. When Garrett was fined his entire fortune and forced to sell his personal property as well as his iron and hardware businesses. Friends from this meetinghouse purchased his businesses and returned them to him. He repaid them. John Dickinson is also interred in the adjacent cemetery.


“Distinctively Delaware” is on permanent exhibit in the Delaware History Museum and that display and others paint a clear picture of the state’s history. A highlight of a museum tour is the large silver tray given to Thomas Garrett in 1866 by the black community and in gratitude.


Immediately adjacent is the Georgian Old Town Hall. A small display on the UGRR is located on the first floor. Steps on the side of the building provide access to original jail cells and the sheriff’s office. Interestingly, the first escapee was a black male.


Tubman and Garrett often worked in tandem and Tubman-Garrett Park in the Riverfront has chosen to pay homage to them both with a splendid sculpture, ”Unwavering Courage in the Pursuit of Freedom.”


Our final stop is Longwood Meetinghouse across the PA line. This radical group of Quakers assisted fugitives in many ways and was often visited by prominent abolitionists of the day. Here you can arrange a guided tour of the Kennett Square UGRR sites.


Information on all sites is available online.


I wish you smooth travels!




Harriett Tubman will be present in the person of Dr. Daisy Century on May 4th at the 80th Annual Dover Days Festival. Mark your calendar for that and all of the Harriett Tubman 100th anniversary events.


The 46th Annual Hampton Jazz Festival Line-up has been announced and tickets are on sale at The festival will be held at the Hampton Coliseum June 28th-30th and opens with the Family Reunion Tour featuring Gladys Knight. Group orders are available only through Hampton Coliseum Box Office. Visit the official website for additional information.


Which of New York’s churches has a slave gallery? Where can you see George Washington’s tooth? Where is the best place to view the Manhattan Solstice? Did you even know there “was” a Manhattan Solstice? These unusual places and many more throughout the city are fully, and light-heartedly, documented in T. M. Rives quirky “Secret New York: An Unusual Guide.” I highly recommend it. Answers will appear next week.


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