Black History Matters: Governor Pardons Abolitionist--After 168 Years

Black History Matters: Governor Pardons Abolitionist--After 168 Years

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Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signs a pardon for Samuel Burris, an Underground Railroad conductor. Burris descendants Ocea Thomas and Rev. Ralph Smith attended.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell on Monday, Nov. 2, pardoned black abolitionist Samuel D. Burris, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, 168 years to the day after he was convicted and sentenced to prison and servitude for helping black men and women escape slavery. His activity was considered both illegal and a form of mental illness by white physicians.

The ceremony, which included unveiling a historical marker honoring Burris, a free black man from the Willow Grove area of Kent County, Del., took place in the Old State House, where Burris was convicted on Nov. 2, 1847, according to the official state website, Blogging Delaware History

Correcting a ‘Historic Wrong’

“This pardon is an extraordinary act in recognition of a historic wrong that cannot be corrected by a single stroke of a pen,” Markell said.

He added, “But while we cannot change what was done more than 150 years ago, we can ensure that Mr. Burris’ legacy is appropriately recognized and celebrated. We affirm today that history will no longer record his actions as criminal, but rather acts of freedom and bravery in the face of injustice.”

The pardon was part of a grassroots effort that gained traction this year.

Among those who lobbied for it were Ocea Thomas, an Atlanta descendent of Burris, and Robert Seeley, who said his ancestor, a white Quaker, helped 2,700 people, including Harriet Tubman, to freedom. Tubman was a leading abolitionist, helping hundreds of slaves escape to freedom.

Burris Arrested

Burris, who lived in Philadelphia, was arrested in 1847, while helping Maria Matthews, a slave escaping from Delaware Hundred, a plantation near Dover, the state capital, according to, a website at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Burris was helping Matthews to escape to Philadelphia. He had successfully helped others to escape, but the exact number is not known.


Photo: Samuel D. Burris

He was imprisoned and forced to wait 14 months before going to trial. A pro-slavery jury found him guilty. During his time in prison, he wrote a letter railing against government officials who allowed slave traders to operate in Delaware.

Burris wrote from a Dover jail, "They uphold and applaud those slave traffickers, and those inhuman and unmerciful leeches in their soul-damning conduct, by making the colored people legal subjects for their bloody principles to feast on."

The Liberator, an anti-slavery newspaper, published his letter in its June 1848 edition.

Unlike white abolitionists with whom he worked, Burris could be enslaved for his actions. He was sold into servitude for two periods of seven years each.

Scientific Racism

Black men and women who either escaped or attempted to escape slavery were considered mentally ill by physicians of the day, according to the book, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became A Black Disease, by Jonathan M. Metzl, associate professor of psychiatry and women’s studies and director of the Culture, Health and Medicine Program at the University of Michigan.

Slaves who escaped bondage were deemed crazy or mad by plantation owners and physicians, Metzl wrote.

His book explains, “It was well-known, of course, that race and insanity share a long and troubled past. In the 1850s, American psychiatrists believed that African-American slaves who ran away from their white masters did so because of a mental illness called draptetomania.

“Draptetomania is now considered the edifice of scientific racism. Medical journals of the era also described a condition called dysaesthesia aethiopis, a form of madness manifested by ‘rascality’ and ‘disrespect for the master’s property’ that was believed to be ‘cured’ by brutal whippings. Even at the turn of the 20th century, leading academic psychiatrists shamefully claimed that Negroes were psychologically unfit for freedom.”

Although white psychiatrists argued black men and black women who escaped slavery or attempted to escape slavery were mad, not everyone agreed.

Abolitionists Bought His Freedom

The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society collected enough money to purchase Burris’ freedom.

Isaac Flint attended the state auction where Burris was to be sold into bondage. Flint was so convincing in his role as a slave trader he and Burris returned to Philadelphia, where Burris’ wife and children lived. Burris knew nothing about the plan.

After escaping nearly being sold at auction, Burris returned to Delaware to work for the Underground Railroad. According to 1840 census, 2,600 slaves lived in that state.

The legislature, however, threatened Burris with 60 lashings, if he were caught. He then gave up his efforts in Delaware.

Later, Burris moved to San Francisco, where he continued to work for the abolitionist cause. He raised funds through black churches to assist blacks affected by the Civil War, according to Black Past.Org.

Burris died at 60 in 1869 in San Francisco.