In a ceremony held on Nov. 2, 2015 in the courtroom of Dover, Del.’s Old State House, Gov. Jack Markell issued a pardon of Samuel D. Burris, a free black man from the Willow Grove area of Kent County, Del., who was convicted on Nov. 2, 1847 of aiding slaves escaping from their owners. The ceremony took place in the very location where Burris was convicted 168 years ago.
As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Burris is known to have successfully led several enslaved people from Maryland and Delaware to relative freedom in Pennsylvania. In 1847, he was captured and charged in three cases with enticing away slaves. Found guilty in two of the cases, he was fined, sentenced to prison and thereafter sentenced to be sold into servitude. After being purchased for $500 by a Wilmington abolitionist, he was taken to Philadelphia where he was reunited with family and friends. He continued to work for the abolitionist cause until his death in San Francisco in 1863.
As part of his remarks, Markell noted, “This pardon is an extraordinary act in recognition of a historic wrong that cannot be corrected by a single stroke of a pen. … While we cannot change what was done more than 150 years ago, we can ensure that Mr. Burris’ legacy is appropriately recognized and celebrated. We affirm today that history will no longer record his actions as criminal, but rather as acts of freedom and bravery in the face of injustice.”
Other highlights of the ceremony included an invocation by the Rev. Ralph D. Smith, Sr., and a reading by Ocea Thomas from a March 29, 1848 letter that Burris wrote to a friend while he was imprisoned in the Dover jail that was located just a few steps from where the ceremony took place. Smith and Thomas are Burris-family descendants.
Quoting from Burris’ letter, which was published under the headline “Letter From Another Martyr in the Cause of Freedom” in the June 30, 1848 edition of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, Thomas read “… for liberty is the word with me, and I would not consent to be President upon any terms that be mentioned, for I consider the lowest condition in life, with freedom attending it, is better than the most exalted station under the restraints of slavery.”
The ceremony also included the dedication of a new historical marker honoring Burris near the location of the abolitionist’s home at the intersection of Route 10 (Willow Grove Road) and Henry Cowgill Road southwest of Camden, Del. The site is located along the route of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway in Delaware.
Musical offerings at the pardon ceremony included performances by the Caesar Rodney High School VOX ONE vocal jazz ensemble and the Interdenominational Chorus of Dover. Government officials in attendance included state Sen. David G. Lawson and state Reps. William R. Outten and Lyndon Yearick, sponsors of the Burris historical marker; Secretary of State Jeffrey W. Bullock; Stephen Marz, director of the Delaware Public Archives which administers the historical marker program; and Tim Slavin, director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, who served as master of ceremonies.
Division staff members who provided invaluable historical research on the life and accomplishments of Samuel D. Burris include Madeline Dunn who in the 1990s initiated the division’s research into Delaware’s African-American history and who subsequently developed interpretive programs on that history that are still offered at the division’s museums; Beverly Laing, who has been conducting research specifically on Burris since 1996; and Cindy Snyder and Gloria Henry, site supervisors respectively of the New Castle Court House Museum and the John Dickinson Plantation, who have been studying the history of African Americans at their sites. Finally, Robin Krawitz, formerly the division’s National Register of Historic Places coordinator and currently program director of Delaware State University’s Historic Preservation program, conducted extensive research on Burris during her tenure at the division. Krawitz is currently working on a book about Burris that will be published by the Delaware Heritage Commission.
For press articles about the ceremony, go to the following:
Delaware Governor Markell pardons a historic hero
Newsworks, WHYY TV, Philadelphia, Pa.—Nov. 13, 2015
Black History Matters: Governor Pardons Abolitionist–After 168 Years
New America Media, San Francisco, Calif.—Nov. 11, 2015
Underground Railroad Conductor Pardoned 168 Years After Conviction
History Channel, New York, N.Y.—Nov. 3, 2015
Delaware governor pardons man who helped slaves escape
WMDT TV, Salisbury, Md.—Nov. 2, 2015
Delaware governor pardons abolitionist who helped slaves escape
CBS News, New York, N.Y.—Nov. 2, 2015
Delaware Pardons an Underground Railroad ‘Hero’
New York Times, N.Y.—Nov. 2, 2015
Free black man who helped scores of slaves escape to the North on the Underground Railroad receives official pardon
Daily Mail, London, U.K.—Nov. 2, 2015
Gov. Jack Markell pardons Delaware abolitionist
The News Journal, Wilmington, Del.—Nov 2, 2015
Governor pardons abolitionist Samuel Burris
Delaware State News, Dover, Del.—Nov. 2, 2015
Kent County Underground Railroad Conductor Pardoned
WBOC TV, Salisbury, Md.—Nov. 2, 2015
Man who helped slaves escape pardoned 168 years after conviction
Fox News, New York, N.Y.—Nov. 2, 2015
Markell pardons Delaware Underground Railroad abolitionist
WDEL Radio, Wilmington, Del.—Nov. 2, 2015
Pardoned for his “crime” 168 year later
WPVI TV, Philadelphia, Pa.—Nov. 2, 2015
Posthumous pardon for Delaware man who helped slaves escape in 1847
Reuters, London, U.K.—Nov. 2, 2015
Righting a wrong: Delaware pardons man who guided slaves to freedom
CNN, Atlanta, Ga.—Nov. 2, 2015
Samuel D. Burris pardon is 10 a.m.
Dover Post, Del.—Nov. 1, 2015