Last updated: September 20, 2021
Samuel Burris’ life was spent fighting for the abolition of slavery, often putting himself in mortal danger. He was an agent on the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people cross from Delaware, where slavery was legal, over into Pennsylvania, which was a free state. In so doing, he was subjected to attack and prosecution, and he came very close to being sold into slavery himself.
Burris was born in Willow Grove, Delaware in 1813, the youngest of six children born to free Black parents. He was working from an early age, and continued to do so all his life, first as a laborer and farmer, and later, due to his good education, as a teacher. Details about Burris’ early life are sparse, but by the 1840s he had a family of his own, and they had moved to Philadelphia, though Burris continued to teach in Wilmington, Delaware.
Their move to Philadelphia was prompted by the increasing legal pressure on free Black Americans in Delaware. Delaware was a slave state, and though it had a substantial population of Quakers who had broadly abolitionist views, as well as a large free Black population that dwarfed the population of enslaved people, the rest of the non-Black population was becoming more pro-slavery as the 1800s rolled on. Throughout the first half of the 1800s, the free Black population of Delaware were denied basic rights as the state passed increasingly restrictive laws. Free Black Delawareans were already prohibited from voting, but in 1807 they were denied re-entry to the First State if they had left for more than six years. This period of time was further reduced on several occasions, until by 1863 if a free Black person left Delaware for as little as five days, they would be barred from coming back. In 1832 they were denied the right to assemble or bear arms, direct violations of the First and Second Amendments. In this atmosphere of increasing repression, the Burris family relocated to Philadelphia for safety.
Burris’ involvement with the Underground Railroad, the secret network of safe houses, abolitionists, and other agents which helped enslaved people escape to free states and territories in the decades before and during the Civil War, started in earnest in the 1840s. He was a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, a major abolitionist group in Philadelphia. He served as a “conductor” (a secret agent) for the group, helping hundreds of enslaved people escape through Delaware and Maryland to the safety of Pennsylvania. He worked closely with two white men on several occasions, John Hunn and Thomas Garret, both of whom would be also be caught up in the case which saw Burris almost sold into slavery.
In January of 1847, Burris, Hunn, and Garrett had attempted to aid the escape of an enslaved woman named Maria Matthews. They were unsuccessful, caught before they could get Matthews aboard a steamship, and she was re-enslaved. Burris and the others were not initially arrested, but charges were soon brought against all three for violating state laws on assisting escaping enslaved people, as well as violating the federal 1793 Fugitive Slave Law. Though the charges were brought in relation to an earlier attempt to aid escaping enslaved people, the case was ultimately about shutting down the Underground Railroad network through legal intimidation. Hunn and Garret were both financially ruined through the huge fines levied on them by Chief Justice Roger Tanney, an ardently pro-slavery judge. Burris’ sentence was far worse. He was imprisoned for 14 months, had a fine of $500 levied on him, and at the conclusion of his time in the Dover jail, was sentenced to be sold into slavery for at least 14 years.
His time in a Dover jail cell was not spent idly however, nor was he abandoned by his abolitionist compatriots. Burris and his friends wrote letters to influential figures around the country, pleading his case. Eventually a plan was formed and funds raised to have a Quaker abolitionist agent, Isaac Flint, pose as a buyer during the auction of Burris on the steps of the Old State House in September of 1848. Through good acting, steady nerves, and a few well-placed bribes, Flint was able to win the auction, and then after getting Burris a safe distance away from Dover, told him "not to fear, you have been purchased with abolitionist gold and I will spirit you away to Philadelphia."
This extremely close call, nor the threat of 60 lashes (a near certain death sentence) should he ever set foot in Delaware again, did not dissuade Burris from continuing his anti-slavery efforts. However, in recognition of the continued danger to his family, he had them move to San Francisco in 1852, and he followed in 1855. There he was a central pillar of the free Black community and was especially interested in promoting education and job training for escaped enslaved people. Burris passed away in 1863, unfortunately not living to see the abolition of slavery in the United States. In 2012 the governor of Delaware officially pardoned Burris posthumously, and his story continues to gain national prominence in recognition of his heroic deeds.
To learn more about Samuel Burris, contact and visit the Old State House in Dover, DE.
- What do you find inspiring about Samuel Burris’ life?
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- Was Burris right in breaking the law to fight slavery?
“The People: Samuel D. Burris.” Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs - State of Delaware, 5 Apr. 2021, history.delaware.gov/flight-to-freedom/people_burris/.
Krawitz, Robin, director. Samuel D. Burris. First State National Historical Park, National Park Service, 2015, www.nps.gov/media/video/view.htm?id=D40B8F30-F712-620E-0C9BDC547E73E032.
Reed, Paula, and Edith Wallace. 2019. A Historic Saga of Settlement and Nation Building: First State National Historical Park Historic Resource Study. New Castle, DE: National Park Service.
Williams, William Henry. Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865. SR Books, 1996.