News Journal, August 21, 1997
Savior of Slaves
The Wilmington abolitionist who dared to turn the other cheek and make
friends with his enemies gradually gets his due as a
At his death in 1871, Thomas Garrett was Wilmington’s best-known
citizen, eulogized as one of “the best men who ever walked on
his name today. Those who do say he was motivated by a placid
self-sacrifice and courage that made him a genuine hero.
personal risk he gave refuge to 2,700 African-Americans fleeing
slavery – more than Harriet Tubman in her 19 trips leading
runaway slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
growing chorus of Delawareans say the life of the 19th
century iron merchant and abolitionist, who lived at 227 Shipley
St., could lure tourists to Delaware and inspire the young – if
his deeds were cherished and his life memorialized with statues
Thomas Garrett’s life he was a much loved figure,” says Harmon
Carey, executive director of the Afro-American Historical
Society of Delaware. “It’s unfortunate few remember him because
this is not a black or white issue. It’s a matter of knowing an
it, local historians ask, that few native Delawareans even know
Garrett’s name? It’s a good question to ask today since Garrett
was born on this date in 1789 in Upper Darby, Pa.
is the stuff of American legends. In his 20’s, historians say,
Garrett had a conversion experience comparable to that of Saul
on the road to Damascus, galvanizing his will against the
abomination of slavery. In 1822 he relocated in Wilmington,
where he was so successful in his abolitionist efforts that
African-Americans called Garrett the black man’s Moses.
Harriet Beecher Stowe even modeled one of her fictional heroes –
Simeon Halliday – after Garrett in the 1852 antislavery novel
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
truly a national figure,” says Barbara Benson, director of the
Historical Society of Delaware. “His moral vision was to
eliminate slavery and he devoted himself to that purpose at
enormous personal sacrifice.”
separate occasions, he was thrown from a train and attacked by
killers, but Garrett would not be deterred. He is even said to
have invited the would-be killers into his house for a meal
after he challenged their attack.
Garrett was tried in New Castle federal court for helping
runaway slaves and was fined such a princely sum he had to sell
his house and possessions. But friends came to his aid and
Garrett was only determined to fight slavery, which he did for
close to 50 years – long enough to see it abolished.
died at almost 82, crowds filed past his casket in his home.
Then to honor what he had done for all African-American people,
eight black men carried his coffin on their shoulders across
Wilmington’s Quaker Hill, where 1,500 mourners crammed into the
Friends Meeting House for the funeral.
are hungry to know there was a man in Wilmington this heroic,”
says Vivian Abdur-Rahim, director of the Harriet Tubman
Historical Society in Wilmington. “Why is it the state doesn’t
fully recognize the achievement of a person who has given their
life for others?”
director of the state historical society, Benson says people
don’t know nearly enough about local history. Newcomers often
fail to learn about their new home and she believes many
students are only taught a local history unit in fourth or fifth
Nationally, only in recent years had the Underground Railroad
started to get the attention it deserves. That recognition has
been slow to come because these heroes, though inspirational,
were overshadowed by the Civil War and kept few records, their
activities being clandestine, says Benson.
Garrett’s story better known, Rahim has been leading tours of
Underground Railroad sites on the Delmarva Peninsula for seven
Famed abolitionist made friends out of enemies
and Thomas Colgan of Arden believe that Garrett could be an
important symbol to a city troubled by drugs and killings. They
are among a small group of Delawareans devoted to the memory of
Garrett, working to make his life known.
portrays Garrett for special tours of the Quaker Hill cemetery.
Colgan has also written a short play about the collaboration of
Garrett and Tubman after she escaped slavery and led others from
bondage. Colgan is a Quaker who believes the Society of Friends
needs the leadership of Garrett.
Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs has created a free
exhibit at the New Castle Court House, in Old New Castle,
comparing Garrett and William Penn, two Quakers who left their
mark on Delaware and the region. Cynthia Snyder, who supervises
the site, says guides also give special tours telling about
Garrett’s 1848 New Castle trail with fellow abolitionist John
Rahim is part
of a committee to raise $250,000 for Quaker Hill statues of
Garrett and Tubman. Rahim believes Garrett’s life would make a
compelling film and is writing letters to see if she can
interest a Hollywood producer. She also advocated changing the
slogan of the city from “A Place to Be Somebody” to “The Last
Great Stop for Freedom.”
Society of Delaware is planning a high-tech display on Garrett
in a new permanent exhibit on First State figures that will open
recently announced the donation of the old Allied Kid tannery at
11th and Poplar streets in Wilmington for a new
African-American museum that would highlight many contributions,
including those of Garrett.
president of the Quaker Hill Preservation Foundation, says
Garrett’s legacy and the architecture of the older section of
the city could make Wilmington a mecca for African-American
tourists fascinated by their history.
restoring the Quaker Hill home built by Garrett’s son Elwood on
Washington Street, making it an Underground Railroad History
Center. The building is one of at least 19 Quaker Hill
properties Marin wants the foundation to restore.
A man of deep convictions
and reverent man from a Pennsylvania family of millers, Thomas
Garrett was taught the Quaker belief in “the divine presence in
the human soul,” an idea that looked at each person as equal
James McGowan writes that the most important experience of
Garrett’s life occurred in 1813 when the young man returned to
his Upper Darby home to find that a free black servant had been
kidnapped by men intent on selling her into slavery.
set off to Philadelphia in pursuit. On the road, he witnessed a
light brighter than the sun. He told friends something about the
light touched his soul and spoke of the horror of slavery.
duty is shown to him and I believe in doing it,” he said after
rescuing the servant.
to Wilmington in 1822 – where he opened a business selling iron,
coal and steel – he became part of a network of abolitionists
(often called the Underground Railroad) giving food, clothes and
a haven to black people who fled Southern plantations.
reached Garrett’s home, slaves had almost won their freedom
since Pennsylvania was a non-slaveholding state. But Garrett’s
activities exposed him to danger, writes McGowan in “Station
Master of the Underground Railroad.”
owners, who paid between $500 and $2,000 for slaves, said they
considered them property and Garrett’s harboring runaway slaves
was against the law – like receiving stolen goods. Still,
Garrett did not hide his activities, though other abolitionists
were known to have been beaten and their houses burned. Garrett
sought to “disarm with candor,” according to McGowan.
gives a hint to Garrett’s character. A slaveholder turned up at
his house one day threatening to kill Garrett if he ever came
replied that he would make the journey soon and would call on
the man – which he did. The two are reported to have become
another occasion the Maryland legislature was proposing a
$10,000 bounty on Garrett because he had aided so many slaves
escaping Maryland plantations. Garrett wrote the legislators
saying if they made the sum $20,000 he would turn himself in for
bold to the point of being fearless. Even while his house was
watched by slave catchers, he would walk slaves out the front
door in the guise of bonneted Quaker women. He believed God was
on his side and he would not fail.
did. Even his 1848 trail for aiding an escaped family of slaves
from Queen Anne’s County, Md., was a triumph. Samuel Hawkins,
his wife and children were caught near Middletown -- before
they reached Garrett – but he used a loophole in their arrest
warrant to free them and see them to safety.
frustrating the slave catchers, Garrett, then 60, was tried in
New Castle’s U.S. District Court and fined $5,400. After the
verdict, he spoke passionately about his commitment to fight
slavery and all that ever stopped him was the Civil War.
end of his life, when blacks had been freed and given the right
to vote, Garrett said: “I have lived to see my Divine Master’s
will well accomplished. My mission’s ended. I am ready to go.”
LEARN MORE…about Thomas Garrett:
Abdur-Rahim, Director of the Harriet Tubman Historical Society,
is available for tours of the Underground Railroad. The New
Castle Court House on Delaware Street in Old New Castle has an
exhibit on Garrett and a special tour dealing with his U.S.
District Court trial. (302) 323-4453
Thomas Colgan of Arden visits Garrett’s grave marker at Quaker
Hill cemetery. Colgan portrays Garrett during special tours
there. The News Journal/Bob Herbert, Photographer.