|1801 February 22
Prince George's County, Maryland
|1883 May 10
Necropolis Cemetery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Thomas Smallwood (1801–1883) was a freedman," a daring activist and searing writer" who worked alongside fellow abolitionist Charles Turner Torrey on the Underground railroad.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.
Thomas Smallwood was born into slavery in Prince George's County, Maryland on 22 February 1801.As a small child, he and his sister Catherine's ownership was transferred through inheritance to Sarah and the Rev. John B. Ferguson. The Reverend Ferguson taught young Thomas Smallwood to read and write. He later filed a deed of manumission in 1815 when Thomas was fourteen, pledging to set him free at age 30 in exchange for $500 and filed a similar manumission for his sister Kitty. Smallwood was freed in 1831 and began work in Washington as a shoemaker. From 1822 to 1830, Smallwood was a strong advocate for the African Colonization Society. However, he was misled on the true beliefs that this society stood for. He believed their goal was to abolish slavery, however, it was the opposite, they wanted to get rid of the free African population by relocating them to Africa.
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.
In Washington, Smallwood worked near Washington Navy Yard where he operated a small shoe making and repair business. Acquaintances began to refer to him as "Smallwood of the Yard" although surviving muster and pay records do not show him directly employed by the navy.He also attended Ebenezer Methodist church on Capitol Hill in the 1820s and 1830s where many employees of the navy yard worshiped. 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 emphasis 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. In 1836 Thomas Smallwood was in the same adult class no.16, as Michael Shiner's wife Phillis.
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 became familiarized with Torrey through his wife because she worked in his home.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.In 1842 -1843 Thomas Smallwood began writing letters to the Albany Patriot, an abolitionist paper, published by Charles Torrey. In his regular letters Smallwood used humor to denigrate slaveholders, and expose the terror they imposed on the enslaved. He also celebrate freedom seekers and their clever ruses. Smallwood's column did not hold back, he named and shamed for example, his 14 June 1843 letter, which described Captain Pendegrass USN of the Washington Navy Yard, whipping an enslaved woman in public on the navy yard itself, with impunity.
Smallwood and Torrey proceeded anyway with building an underground railroad network in Washington. They had two places that they collected deposits from for those that they helped travel along the Underground Railroad.This was necessary as he had to pay the teamster's and any means of conveyances.
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 motivated by profit.
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 was encountering many obstacles while trying to help slaves and their journey to the North. He became well known to slaveholders; therefore, it was extremely risky for him to stay in the United States, and he was encouraged by Torrey to return to Canada indefinitely
Smallwood fled on foot to Baltimore, where Gibbs helped arrange his return to Toronto. He arrived in Toronto, Canada on December 23, 1843.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. He also expressed opposition to the Refugee Home Society which was created by Henry Bibb because he believed that Blacks should be independent and not take any funds from whites, as well as opposition to the enforcement of segregation.
After Smallwood was freed, he married a free Black woman Elizabeth Anderson and they had five children together. While their marriage was officially recorded in court records in 1836, Smallwood in his memoir dates their union to a decade earlier, in 1826.By Smallwoods own account Elizabeth actively and continually assist him in organizing escapes. He wrote she was able to find a generous benefactor to aid those fleeing North and praised her presence of mind and ingenuity to remove obstacles.
From 1846 to his death in 1883, Thomas Smallwood worked many jobs which were captured through the home and city directories in Toronto, Ontario. During this period, he worked in the saw business as a saw sharpener, setter, filer, and dresser. These jobs began on York Street, carried into Queen Street West, and ended on 18 Elizabeth Street. From 1874 to 1878, Smallwood also took on a second job as a bricklayer.Similarly, his son William Smallwood (1861-1927), took on the role as bricklayer in the year of 1874, alongside his father on Chestnut Street.
Smallwood died of old age in Toronto on May 10, 1883, and was buried in the Toronto Necropolis the following day.
The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century. It was used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape into free states and from there to Canada. The network, primarily the work of free African Americans, was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. The slaves who risked capture and those who aided them are also collectively referred to as the passengers and conductors of the "Underground Railroad". Various other routes led to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished, and to islands in the Caribbean that were not part of the slave trade. An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until approximately 1790. However, the network generally known as the Underground Railroad began in the late 18th century. It ran north and grew steadily until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. One estimate suggests that, by 1850, approximately 100,000 slaves had escaped to freedom via the network.
The Fugitive Slave Act or Fugitive Slave Law was a law passed by the 31st United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern interests in slavery and Northern Free-Soilers.
The Pearl incident was the largest recorded nonviolent escape attempt by enslaved people in United States history. On April 15, 1848, seventy-seven slaves attempted to escape Washington D.C. by sailing away on a schooner called The Pearl. Their plan was to sail south on the Potomac River, then north up the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River to the free state of New Jersey, a distance of nearly 225 miles (362 km). The attempt was organized by both abolitionist whites and free blacks, who expanded the plan to include many more enslaved people. Paul Jennings, a former slave who had served President James Madison, helped plan the escape.
In the United States, fugitive slaves or runaway slaves were terms used in the 18th and 19th centuries to describe people who fled slavery. The term also refers to the federal Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. Such people are also called freedom seekers to avoid implying that the enslaved person had committed a crime and that the slaveholder was the injured party.
Mary Edmonson (1832–1853) and Emily Edmonson, "two respectable young women of light complexion", were African Americans who became celebrities in the United States abolitionist movement after gaining their freedom from slavery. On April 15, 1848, they were among the 77 slaves who tried to escape from Washington, DC on the schooner The Pearl to sail up the Chesapeake Bay to freedom in New Jersey.
Henry Walton Bibb, was an American author and abolitionist who was born into slavery. Bibb told his life story in his Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, which included many failed escape attempts followed finally by success when he escaped to Detroit. After leaving Detroit to move to Canada with his family, due to issues with the legality of his assistance in the Underground Railroad, he founded the abolitionist newspaper, Voice of the Fugitive. He lived in Canada until his death.
The Boston Vigilance Committee (1841–1861) was an abolitionist organization formed in Boston, Massachusetts, to protect escaped slaves from being kidnapped and returned to slavery in the South. The Committee aided hundreds of escapees, most of whom arrived as stowaways on coastal trading vessels and stayed a short time before moving on to Canada or England. Notably, members of the Committee provided legal and other aid to George Latimer, Ellen and William Craft, Shadrach Minkins, Thomas Sims, and Anthony Burns.
The Liberty Party was an abolitionist political party in the United States prior to the American Civil War. The party experienced its greatest activity during the 1840s, while remnants persisted as late as 1860. It supported James G. Birney in the presidential elections of 1840 and 1844. Others who attained prominence as leaders of the Liberty Party included Gerrit Smith, Salmon P. Chase, Henry Highland Garnet, Henry Bibb, and William Goodell. They attempted to work within the federal system created by the United States Constitution to diminish the political influence of the Slave Power and advance the cause of universal emancipation and an integrated, egalitarian society.
The Underground Railroad in Indiana was part of a larger, unofficial, and loosely-connected network of groups and individuals who aided and facilitated the escape of runaway slaves from the southern United States. The network in Indiana gradually evolved in the 1830s and 1840s, reached its peak during the 1850s, and continued until slavery was abolished throughout the United States at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. It is not known how many fugitive slaves escaped through Indiana on their journey to Michigan and Canada. An unknown number of Indiana's abolitionists, anti-slavery advocates, and people of color, as well as Quakers and other religious groups illegally operated stations along the network. Some of the network's operatives have been identified, including Levi Coffin, the best-known of Indiana's Underground Railroad leaders. In addition to shelter, network agents provided food, guidance, and, in some cases, transportation to aid the runaways.
William Parker was an American former slave who escaped from Maryland to Pennsylvania, where he became an abolitionist and anti-slavery activist in Christiana. He was a farmer and led a black self-defense organization. He was notable as a principal figure in the Christiana incident, 1851, also known as the Christiana Resistance. Edward Gorsuch, a Maryland slaveowner who owned four slaves who had fled over the state border to Parker's farm, was killed and other white men in the party to capture the fugitives were wounded. The events brought national attention to the challenges of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
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.
Leonard Andrew Grimes was an African-American abolitionist and pastor. He served as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, including his efforts to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns captured in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. After the Civil War began, Grimes petitioned for African-American enlistment. He then recruited soldiers for the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Enslaved labor on United States military installations was a common sight in the first half of the nineteen century, for agencies and departments of the federal government were deeply involved in the use of enslaved blacks. In fact, the United States military was the largest federal employer of rented or leased slaves throughout the antebellum period. In 1816, a visitor to the Washington Navy Yard wrote that master blacksmith, Benjamin King, estimated daily expense for a slave as twenty-seven cents and noted how lucrative the business had become. According to King, Navy was paying eighty cents per day for black workers while white blacksmiths were paid $1.81 per diem. Further south on April 27, 1830 at Gosport Navy Yard, civil engineer Loammni Baldwin, transmitted a detailed report showing the "great economy of employing slaves" on the new dry dock. Baldwin by comparing the average cost of free white, stone masons with enslaved black hammers, lauded the saving gained by having blacks perform the work at 72 cents per day in comparison to white stone mason's paid 2.00 per day. An English visitor and author, Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley, writing in the late 1840s, noted the prevalence of slave labor at the Washington Navy Yard: "We saw a sadder sight after that, a large number of slaves, who seemed to be forging their own chains, but they were making chains, anchors, &c., for the United States Navy."
George Teamoh was born enslaved in Norfolk, Virginia, worked at the Fort Monroe, the Norfolk Naval Yard and other military installations before the American Civil War, escaped to freedom in New York and moved to Massachusetts circa 1853, and returned to Virginia after the war to become a community leader, member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1868 and then Virginia Senate during the Reconstruction era, and finally an author in his final years. Teamoh's autobiography is remarkable for his clear rebuke of the military's use of slave labor and the federal government's role both in perpetuating slavery and failing to protect newly emancipated blacks.
I have worked in every Department in the Navy Yard and Dry-Dock, as a laborer, and this during very long years of unrequited toil, and the same might be said of the vast numbers, reaching to thousands of slaves who have been worked, lashed and bruised by the United States government ...
Joe Thompson vs Walter Clarke was decided in December 1817.
Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts, began with the opposition to slavery voiced by Quakers during the late 1820s, followed by African Americans forming the antislavery group New Bedford Union Society in 1833, and an integrated group of abolitionists forming the New Bedford Anti-Slavery Society a year later. During the era New Bedford, Massachusetts, gained a reputation as a safe haven for fugitive slaves seeking freedom. Located on the East Coast of the United States, the town was becoming the "whaling capital of the world", where ships frequently returned to port, operated by crews of diverse backgrounds, languages, and ethnicity. This made it easy for fugitive slaves to "mix in" with crew members. The whaling and shipping industries were also uniquely open to people of color.
Daniel Bell was a formerly enslaved man who gained his freedom and then sought the freedom of his wife, Mary, and their children. Due to a series of unfortunate events, it took decades for the Bell family to obtain their freedom. Daniel and his wife had both been enslaved again after they had obtained their freedom. Two of their children who were born free were enslaved.
The Underground Railroad in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was a critical hub of the American Underground Railroad network, which helped men, women and children to escape the system of chattel slavery that existed in the United States during the nineteenth century.
Black Canadians migrated north in the 18th and 19th centuries from the United States, many of them through the Underground Railroad, into Southwestern Ontario, Toronto, and Owen Sound. Black Canadians fought in the War of 1812 and Rebellions of 1837–1838 for the British. Some returned to the United States during the American Civil War or during the Reconstruction era.
Flee North: A Forgotten Hero and the Fight for Freedom in Slavery’s Borderland is a 2023 biography of Thomas Smallwood written by American journalist Scott Shane.