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Free black man who helped slaves escape through Underground Railroad receives official pardon
A free black man who risked everything to help scores of slaves escape on the Underground Railroad has received an official pardon.
Not even the threat of being sold into slavery could stop Samuel Burris from helping slaves to freedom in the 19th century.
In 1847, he was caught helping a woman named Maria Mathews try to escape from a life of slavery in Delaware.
Burris was tried and convicted of enticing slaves to escape and sentenced to seven years of servitude.
He was then auctioned off to the highest bidder at Old State House in Dover, Delaware.
Today, exactly 168 years since his trial, Burris has received an official pardon from state governor Jack Markell.
Gov. Markell said the state only granted posthumous pardons on rare occasions but that it was the right thing to do for Burris – a man of extraordinary bravery.
‘This was an opportunity to right a wrong for a person with steadfast courage who put themselves at risk,’ he told CNN.
He was courageous even when putting himself in danger. ‘It seemed like a good thing to do.’
Burris’ ancestor, Ocea Thomas of Atlanta, was among those who had lobbied for the pardon along with Robert Seeley, whose ancestor, a white Quaker, helped 2,700 slaves to freedom.
Thomas says she became emotional after learning that Burris, the brother of her great-great grandmother, would be pardoned.
‘I stood there and cried. It was pride. It was relief. I guess justification. All of that,’ Thomas said.
Today she is celebrating as her ancestor ‘Uncle Sam D’ is finally pardoned after 168 years.
‘The national and international interest is amazing. I am pleased that his name, his story and the positive closure has been brought to the attention of so many,’ she told CNN.
The declaration is made from the same building he was once auctioned off as a slave after languishing in a Dover jail for 14 months.
While in jail he wrote a damning letter to abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in June 1848 where he said: ‘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,’ reported CNN.
But while Burris, who was born to free parents in Kent County in 1813, feared he was being sent to the South never to return, an abolitionist group were scheming a rescue plan of their own.
A Pennsylvania anti-slavery society who had heard about his case raised $500 to purchase him and set him free.
Isaac Flint, a white Quaker from Philadelphia traveled to Dover, where no-one knew him, for the auction on the Old State House’s marble steps in September 1848.
After making the successful bid, the abolitionist is believed to have whispered to Burris: ‘not to fear, you have been purchased with abolitionist gold’.
The anti-slavery group whisked Burris away to Phildelphia where he joined his wife Catherine and five children.
Despite his near brush with slavery, Burris returned to Delaware to continue helping to slaves to escape to the north.
Robin Krawitz, a historian at Delaware State University who is writing a book about Burris, said historians don’t know exactly how many slaves Burris helped escape but they do know he continued his work even after his conviction, at great personal risk.
Slaveholders and sympathizers eventually complained to the state legislature, saying Burris hadn’t stopped enticing slaves to leave their masters.
Burris left the state when lawmakers responded with a law that could have brought a lashing so severe it would have been tantamount to a death sentence.
He moved to San Francisco but continued to raise funds to send to Philadelphia to help freed slaves.
The free man died aged 50 in 1863 but not before he got to see President Abraham Lincoln issue his Emancipation Proclamation – which declared slaves in the South free.
Delaware had been a slave state in the early to mid 1800s while groups such as the Quakers and Methodists worked to abolish slavery.
In 1840, the state was recorded as having as many as 2,600 slaves.
Delaware had already been planning to unveil a historical marker honoring Burris today when governor Markell agreed to grant the pardon. The marker will be placed in Delaware’s Kent County, near where Burris grew up.
Robert Seeley, of Havertown, Pennsylvania, who had asked the governor earlier this year to pardon Burris and two other men, was delighted it had been granted.
‘It’s a victory. It brings honor to the Burris family and it brings justice for Samuel Burris and his descendants. It’s making a wrong a right finally,’ Seeley said.
Seeley had asked the governor to pardon Burris as well as two others who had worked to get slaves to freedom: John Hunn and Thomas Garrett, one of Seeley’s relatives who is credited with helping more than 2,000 slaves escape.
Seeley says he got the idea after outgoing Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn granted clemency to three abolitionists convicted for hiding and helping escaped slaves.
Seeley says he’s been working with Markell’s office but that the governor can’t issue a pardon in Hunn and Garrett’s cases because they were tried in federal court, not state court.
He says President Barack Obama would need to pardon them and that he plans to continue to work on a pardon in their case.
‘Even if it comes out to be a proclamation or a declaration or not an official presidential pardon, so be it. We’ll see what we can do,’ he said, adding there is ‘a lot of red tape.’