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]


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]

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]

In Washington, Smallwood worked at the Washington Navy Yard and attended Ebenezer Methodist church on Capitol Hill in the 1820s and 1830s 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]

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]

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.