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“My Mind was Liberty or Death:” Elizabeth Blakeley’s Escape to Freedom

Boston served as a destination for many people escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers arriving in the city found that Boston's tightly knit free Black community provided support and a welcome sanctuary as they began their new lives. This article highlights the journey of a freedom seeker, Elizabeth Blakeley, who escaped to Boston. To explore additional stories, visit Boston: An Underground Railroad Hub.

Born enslaved in North Carolina, Elizabeth Blakeley faced terrible treatment by her enslaver. Determined to escape, Blakeley hid on a vessel headed north to Boston, thwarting authorities attempts to find her. She survived a four-week long journey, arriving in Boston as a free person. A few weeks after her arrival, Blakeley shared her story at an anti-slavery meeting in Faneuil Hall. Due to her courageous escape, Blakeley chose her own life path, living in Toronto and Massachusetts.

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Elizabeth Blakeley

c.1835 - March 31, 1919

Explore Elizabeth Blakeley's escape to freedom.

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Elizabeth Blakeley

c.1835 - March 31, 1919

Explore Elizabeth Blakeley's escape to freedom.

Engraving of the harbor of Wilmington, North CarolinaBlakeley lived enslaved in Wilmington, North Carolina. (Credit: "Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion," 1853)

c. 1835: Wilmington, North Carolina

Born enslaved around 1835, Elizabeth Blakeley lived in Wilmington, North Carolina with her enslaver, George W. Davis. According to Thomas Jones, an enslaved man who escaped from Wilmington to New York, Blakeley faced terrible treatment from Davis. Reflecting on this at an anti-slavery rally at Faneuil Hall, Jones stated, “he knew the Slave-girl (Betsy Blakely) well…if he should tell what wrongs and sufferings she had had to endure from her owner, those present would hardly bear to hear them.”[1] We know little else about her early life in Wilmington.

Engraving of a woman hiding on a ship.Betsy [Elizabeth] hid herself on a coast vessel. (Credit: "The Brownies' Book," W.E.B. Du Bois, 1920-21)

1850: Boston, Massachusetts

Determined to escape enslavement, Blakeley, at about 15 years old, used her location in a port city to her advantage. In December of 1849, Blakeley learned that a ship docked in Wilmington Harbor had been scheduled for a trip to Boston. The night before the ship departed, Blakeley snuck onboard and hid herself in a small space. The next morning her enslaver, George W. Davis, learned of her escape and suspected that Blakeley may have hid herself on a northbound ship. Describing what happened next, a correspondent from the Boston Post wrote,

The authorities at Wilmington, almost knowing her to be on board, made repeated searches, and smoked the vessel several times, after loudly announcing that they would smother her if she did not show herself. [2]

Blakeley did not reveal herself, and the ship left Wilmington for Boston. Years later, when reflecting on the story of Blakeley, Wendell Phillips recalled, “she lay while her inhuman master, almost certain she was on board the vessel, called out to her, ‘you had better come out! I am going to smoke the vessel!’ She tells: I heard him call, but my mind was liberty or death.”[3]

Sepia image of Faneuil HallBlakeley attended an anti-slavery meeting at Faneuil Hall after she arrived in Boston. (Credit: Boston Public Library)

January 24, 1850: Faneuil Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

After a four-week journey, delayed because of bad weather, Elizabeth Blakeley arrived in Boston. Though suffering from badly frostbitten feet, she survived the rough conditions and made it to free soil. A few weeks after her arrival in Boston, abolitionists held their 18th annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society at Faneuil Hall. During the Thursday evening session, Lucy Stone, a leading anti-slavery activist, brought Blakeley onto the stage. As a correspondent for The Liberator wrote, “Lucy Stone came forward, took the slave girl by the hand, welcomed her to our midst, and appealed to the audience against that Union and Constitution which had subjected her young sister to such awful suffering and violence.”[4] Those in attendance later passed a resolution calling for the removal of Blakeley’s enslaver, George W. Davis, from his post as British Consul for Wilmington, North Carolina.

Black and white image overlooking buildings and a harbor in the distance.In the mid-1850s Blakeley lived in New Haven, Connecticut. (Credit: New York Public Library)

1855: New Haven, Connecticut

Little is known about Blakeley’s life in the years following the Anti-Slavery meeting at Faneuil Hall. She married a man named William Hudson in Boston in 1854, and, by 1855, census records indicate that she moved to New Haven, Connecticut with him.

Record book that lists William C. Nell assisting Betsy BlakeleyThe Boston Vigilance Committee account book records William C. Nell assisting Besty Blakeley. (Credit: Dr. Irving H. Bartlett Collection, 1830-1880)

1857: Toronto, Canada

On May 8, 1857 the Boston Vigilance Committee reimbursed William Cooper Nell fifteen dollars for “Betsey Blakely to Canada.”[5] It appears that Blakeley, William, and their growing family settled in Toronto’s St. John’s Ward, a historic 19th century Black neighborhood.

Title page of a pamphlet for a 100th Birthday Celebration of William LLoyd GarrisonBlakeley joined others in celebrating the anniversary of William Lloyd Garrison's birth. (Credit: "The celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of William Lloyd Garrison," 1906)

c. 1870s: Chelsea, Massachusetts

After a few years in Toronto, Blakeley and her family moved back to Massachusetts sometime in the 1870s. Living in the greater Boston area for the rest of her life, Blakeley returned to Faneuil Hall in 1909, nearly sixty years after her first visit, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of William Lloyd Garrison’s birth. Describing the ceremony, Miss Ethel Lewis wrote, “The hall was well filled. Upon the platform were: Mr. John J. Smith, Mrs. Betsey Blakeley Hudson, known as ‘Mr. Garrison’s gift,’ escaped fugitive slave, who was brought from the wharf to an anti-slavery meeting in Faneuil Hall…”[6]

View from the balcony overlooking the stage in Faneuil Hall.

Inside Faneuil Hall, where people attended this anniversary event. (Credit: Boston Public Library)

Entrance to a cemetery that includes a building with a tower.The Woodlawn Cemetery, the resting place of Elizabeth Blakeley. (Credit: Everett Public Libraries)

March 31, 1919: Woodlawn Cemetery, Everett, Massachusetts

Elzabeth Blakeley died in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1919 around the age of 84. She is buried in the family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery with her husband William. Blakeley’s story exemplifies the boldness and courage of individuals that seized their freedom on the Underground Railroad. As Wendell Phillips said when describing Blakeley, “She came North, half frozen, in the most inclement month of the year…Just able to stand, fresh from that baptism of suffering for her liberty…”[7]

Footnotes

[1] 18th Annual Report Presented to Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society by it’s Board of Members (Boston, Massachusetts), January 23, 1850.

Image: "View of Wilmington, North Carolina," Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, ed. Maturin Murray Ballou (Boston : F. Gleason [etc.], 1853), https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pst.000055550178&view=1up&seq=45&q1=wilmington.

[2] “Remarkable Escape of Slave,” North Carolina Standard, January 16, 1850.

Image: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Brownies' book (New York, N.Y.: DuBois and Dill, to 1921, 1920), Periodical, https://www.loc.gov/item/22001351/.

[3] Austin Bearse, Reminisces of the Fugitive Slave Law Days (Warren Richardson, 1880), 31. Archive.org archive.org/details/reminiscencesfu00beargoog/page/n20/mode/2up/search/trade.

Image: "Faneuil Hall. Built in 1742," Photograph, 1860, Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/s1784x327 (accessed November, 2020).

[4] “Eighteenth Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts A.S. Society,” The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), February 1, 1850.

Image: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library, "Harbor and long Wharf, from Depot Tower, New Haven," New York Public Library Digital Collections, accessed November, 2020. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-6f14-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

[5] Francis Jackson, Treasurers Accounts: The Boston Vigilance Committee, Bostonian Society, 2011, 52. Archive.org https:/archive.org/details/drirvinghbartlet19bart/page/52/mode/2up

Image: Francis Jackson, Treasurers Accounts: The Boston Vigilance Committee, Bostonian Society, 2011, 52. Archive.org https:/archive.org/details/drirvinghbartlet19bart/page/52/mode/2up

[6] Ethel Lewis, The Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of William Lloyd Garrison (Boston: The Garrison Centenary Committee of the Suffrage League of Boston and Vicinity, 1906), Archive.org, 2006. https://archive.org/details/celebrationonehundred00garrrich/page/36/mode/2up?q=betsey

Images: "Interior of Faneuil Hall," Photograph, 1885, Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/p2677g48p (accessed November, 2020); Ethel Lewis, The Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of William Lloyd Garrison (Boston: The Garrison Centenary Committee of the Suffrage League of Boston and Vicinity, 1906), Archive.org, 2006. https://archive.org/details/celebrationonehundred00garrrich/page/n7/mode/2up?q=betsey

[7] “Speech of Wendell Phillips, Esq.” Pennsylvania Freeman, February 19, 1852.

Gustav F. Braun, “Woodlawn Cemetery Everett,” NOBLE Digital Heritage, accessed November, 2020, https://digitalheritage.noblenet.org/noble/items/show/612.

Last updated: November 24, 2020