Some regard the Underground Railroad as the noblest endeavor of conscience in United States history. - "Rediscovering the Underground Railroad In One United States County," by Peter H. Michael
One of Alexandria’s most poignant public spaces is the Lyceum. Located in the heart of the historic district, the building has served the community since 1839. From time to time, citizens gather there to escape the humdrum of their everyday lives by listening to lectures by experts, researchers and authors.
Last night, the Alexandria Historical Society hosted Dr. Jenny Masur. A Fulbright Scholar and Director with the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, she gave a presentation about a group of people whose freedom depended on their escape.
Masur prefaced her lecture by noting the mission of the “National Underground Network to Freedom.” Congress established the organization in 1998 to “commemorate, preserve, and document Underground Railroad history.” Rather than individual localities conducting singular studies, the Network takes a partnership approach. This method facilitates research, which is difficult given the nature of the subject matter.
The Underground Railroad began in the early part of the 19th Century. Those lending their support included black and white abolitionist, Quakers and others religious groups, and the communities of enslaved persons. Fugitives used the North Star and whatever means they could, including hiding in barns and woods, staying with other families and a “loosely connected series of routes.” In Washington, escapees used Rockville Pike and the C&O canal.
Needless to say, escaping was a perilous act. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 “permitted the recapture and extradition of escaped slaves.” A similar law had been passed in 1793.
Typically, only young men walked away from plantations and homes. To say they were courageous is an understatement. Owners placed notices in the newspapers and would travel long distances to try and capture the escaped fugitive. Anyone assisting was arrested, fined and imprisoned.
In the Washington region, several persons played a prominent role. Masur first talked about Leonard Grimes. He parlayed his skills as a hack driver to assists fugitive slaves. After his conviction, he spent two years in a Richmond jail. A marker in D.C. notes his contributions. He owned property at 22nd and H, NW. Grimes later lobbied for the Freedman’s Bureau.
Risking their own freedom, some captains of ships provided transportation to the North. One such person was Samuel Chadwick, captain of a sloop, the Regulator. He transported escapees from the Alexandria port to New Bedford, Mass., a primary destination for fugitive slaves.
Masur also talked about the escape of the Pearl, and the Edmonson Sisters, Emily and Mary. Daniel Drayton helped 70 some slaves escape Washington.
The Alexandria Historical Society sponsored the lecture. Membership has benefits, such as their quarterly publication, “The Alexandria Chronicle.” The Fall 2012 issue features, “Runaway Slaves in Northern Virginia in the Early 19th Century" by Dan Hicks. His research piece focuses on enslaved persons who fled captivity but stayed in the local area.
“Bound for Canaan, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America,” by Fergus Bordewich
The Underground Railroad, Map and Guide, National Park Service
National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, “Underground Railroad in Washington, D.C.,” National Park Service
“Runaway Slaves in Northern Virginia in the Early 19th Century,” by Dan Hicks. Published in the Alexandria Chronicle, Fall 2012.