Thomas Smallwood

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Thomas Smallwood (1801–1883) was a freedman who worked alongside prominent abolitionist Charles Turner Torrey on the Underground railroad. [1] The two men created what some historians believe was the first branch of the underground railroad that ran through Washington, D.C., which they operated from 1842 to 1844. After their involvement ceased, the network continued to exist in Washington for another two decades. Smallwood also wrote for Torrey's Albany, New York antislavery newspaper, Tocsin of Liberty, as its Washington correspondent. [2]

A freedman or freedwoman is a former slave who has been released from slavery, usually by legal means. Historically, slaves were freed either by manumission or emancipation. A fugitive slave is one who escaped slavery by fleeing.

Charles Turner Torrey American abolitionist

Charles Turner Torrey was a leading American abolitionist. Although largely lost to historians until recently, Torrey pushed the abolitionist movement to more political and aggressive strategies, including setting up one of the first highly organized lines for the Underground Railroad and personally freeing approximately 400 slaves. Torrey also worked closely with free blacks, thus becoming one of the first to consider them partners. John Brown cited Torrey as one of the three abolitionists he looked to as models for his own efforts.

Washington, D.C. Capital of the United States

Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington or D.C., is the capital of the United States. Founded after the American Revolution as the seat of government of the newly independent country, Washington was named after George Washington, the first president of the United States and a Founding Father. As the seat of the United States federal government and several international organizations, Washington is an important world political capital. The city, located on the Potomac River bordering Maryland and Virginia, is one of the most visited cities in the world, with more than 20 million tourists annually.


Thomas Smallwood was born a slave in Prince George's County, Maryland in 1801. As a small child, his ownership transferred to Rev. John B. Ferguson, who taught Smallwood to read and write and agreed to set Smallwood free at age 30 in exchange for $500. Smallwood was freed in 1831 and began work in Washington as a shoemaker. [2]

Slavery in the United States Form of slave labor which existed as a legal institution from the early years of the United States

Slavery in the United States was the legal institution of human chattel enslavement, primarily of Africans and African Americans, that existed in the United States of America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slavery had been practiced in British America from early colonial days, and was legal in all Thirteen Colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It lasted in about half the states until 1865, when it was prohibited nationally by the Thirteenth Amendment. As an economic system, slavery was largely replaced by sharecropping and convict leasing.

Prince Georges County, Maryland County in the United States

Prince George's County is located in the U.S. state of Maryland, bordering the eastern portion of Washington, D.C. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, the population was 863,420, making it the second-most populous county in Maryland, behind Montgomery County. Its county seat is Upper Marlboro. It is one of the richest African American-majority counties in the United States, with five of its communities identified in a 2015 top ten list.

Smallwood was deeply motivated by the humiliations he experienced as a slave and his Christian beliefs to engage in antislavery activity. Smallwood opposed manumission, or the legal purchasing of slaves to secure their freedom. But his options for bolder action were limited by the fact that he was living in a region of the country controlled by slaveholders. [2]

Christianity is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and savior of all people, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures of Judaism, called Old Testament in Christianity, and chronicled in the New Testament. It is the world's largest religion with over 2.4 billion followers.

Manumission act of slave owner freeing slaves

Manumission, or affranchisement, is the act of an owner freeing his or her slaves. Different approaches developed, each specific to the time and place of a particular society. Jamaican historian Verene Shepherd states that the most widely used term is gratuitous manumission, "the conferment of freedom on the enslaved by enslavers before the end of the slave system".

In Washington, Smallwood worked at the Washington Navy Yard and attended Ebenezer Methodist church on Capitol Hill in the 1820’s and 1830’s were many employees of the navy yard worshiped. [3] [4] At Ebenezer, Smallwood and his family found fellowship, and camaraderie and had the opportunity to take part in a progressive and active religious community. Many African Americans during this period found Methodism congenial. The appeal of this relatively new religion was both the emphasize on individual personal conversion, and in theory, the equality of all the faithful before God. Slaves and free people of color took part in adult classes, religious instruction, and gained the opportunity in church sponsored adult classes to learn to write and read scripture. Attendees included a wide range of community leaders including diarist Michael Shiner, Moses Liverpool, Nicholas Franklin and Sophia Bell all leaders in the African American community. [5] In 1836 Thomas Smallwood was in the same adult class no.16, as Michael Shiner's wife Phillis. [6]

Washington Navy Yard

The Washington Navy Yard (WNY) is the former shipyard and ordnance plant of the United States Navy in Southeast Washington, D.C. It is the oldest shore establishment of the U.S. Navy.

Then, in early 1842, Smallwood read about Charles Turner Torrey, an antislavery activist who was jailed in Annapolis, Maryland for attempting to report on a legislative convention of Maryland slaveholders. Smallwood arranged their introduction. According to Smallwood, Torrey immediately invited him to help plan the escape of a slave family owned by George E. Badger. The North Carolina plantation owner had plans to sell the family down south. But escape plans fell apart when the mother opted to try to raise money for her family's freedom instead. [1]

Annapolis, Maryland Capital of Maryland

Annapolis is the capital of the U.S. state of Maryland, as well as the county seat of Anne Arundel County. Situated on the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the Severn River, 25 miles (40 km) south of Baltimore and about 30 miles (50 km) east of Washington, D.C., Annapolis is part of the Baltimore–Washington metropolitan area. Its population was measured at 38,394 by the 2010 census.

George Edmund Badger American secretary of the navy and senator for North Caroleeba

George Edmund Badger was a Whig U.S. senator from the state of North Carolina.

Smallwood and Torrey proceeded anyway with building an underground railroad network in Washington. The fugitives they secreted north were mostly local slaves whom Torrey or Smallwood met in church, or whom Smallwood met through work at Navy Yard or through the literacy classes he taught. The two men recruited and guided escaped slaves while Smallwood's wife, Elizabeth Smallwood, and his landlady sometimes harbored the fugitives in Smallwood's Washington home. At least once, Captain John H. Goddard, the leader of Washington's police force and de facto antislavery patrol, searched the Smallwood household as a fugitive slave fled out the back door. The pair often paid local black men to assist them. They also relied on the help of a freedman, Jacob Gibbs, who ran an underground network in Baltimore. Smallwood also went to lengths to exclude from their new network people he felt were motived by profit. [2]

Daily Herald 1843-12-06 (3) New Haven Connecticut notice re Thomas Smallwood and escaped slave Daily Herald 1843-12-06 (3) New Haven Connecticut Thomas Smallwood Capt Goodard.pdf
Daily Herald 1843-12-06 (3) New Haven Connecticut notice re Thomas Smallwood and escaped slave

Smallwood and Torrey's first fugitive party was a group of 15 men, women, and children who successfully escaped to Canada. After Torrey relocated to Albany, Smallwood led several more northward escapes by himself. But fears that he was no longer safe from arrest convinced Smallwood to move to Toronto in June 1843. He moved his wife and children to the city that October. Shortly thereafter, Smallwood and Torrey launched their final joint mission, an ill-fated attempt to rescue the families of four escaped black men who approached Smallwood in Toronto. With material support from northern abolitionists such as Thomas Garrett, Torrey and Smallwood met the escapees in Washington. But they narrowly missed capture by Goddard. Smallwood fled on foot to Baltimore, where Gibbs helped arrange his return to Toronto. Smallwood lived the rest of his life in Toronto, where he operated a saw mill and became a prominent member of the city's black leadership. [2]

Smallwood died of old age in Toronto on May 10, 1883, and was buried in the Toronto Necropolis the following day. [7]

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  1. 1 2 Smallwood, Thomas (1851). "A Narrative of Thomas Smallwood, (Coloured Man:) Giving an Account of His Birth — The Period He Was Held in Slavery — His Release — and Removal to Canada, etc. Together With an Account of the Underground Railroad. Written by Himself". James Stephens.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Harrold, Stanley (2003). Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. pp. 54–85. ISBN   0-8071-2838-4.
  3. Harrold,p78.
  4. Sandrine Ferré-Rode A Black Voice from the “other North:” Thomas Smallwood’s Canadian Narrative (1851) Revue française d’études américaines 2013/3 (No 137) accessed 22 April 22, 2018
  5. Sharp, John G. African Americans In Slavery and Freedom on the Washington Navy Yard 1799 -1865 Hannah Morgan Press:Concord Ca,2011,16.
  6. Sharp, n.62.
  7. "Ontario, Toronto Trust Cemeteries, 1826-1989," database with images,, Necropolis Cemetery, image 7 of 221, Toronto Trust Cemeteries, Toronto.