Black History of the First State: Samuel D. Burris

By Carlton Hall, architectural historian with the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

“Black History of the First State” is a new quarterly feature highlighting important people and events in Black history throughout Delaware. The posts are authored by Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs Historian-Architectural Historian Carlton Hall Jr., in collaboration with Social Media Lead Desiree May, as a way of acknowledging and bringing awareness to the history, accomplishments and contributions made by African Americans in the First State between 1639 and 1993.

Hall has worked for the Division since 2015 but became enthralled in history beginning as a teenager while visiting Williamsburg, Virginia.

“I wanted to initiate this project since giving presentations throughout the state on Delaware Green Book listings six years ago,” Hall said. “I saw that there was an interest in little known Black history of Delaware. Delaware should care because the first known African settled here (then known as New Sweden) as early as 1639. We should care because Black history is part of American history.”

Samuel D. Burris (1813-1863)

Samuel D. Burris was a free African American and also a conductor of the Underground Railroad here in Delaware in the 1830s and 1840s. Burris was born in Willow Grove near Camden in Kent County in 1813. He began working as a laborer and farmer at a young age. Burris was well educated and also became a teacher in Wilmington, Delaware. 

Etching of Samuel D. Burris
Samuel D. Burris

Burris began helping runaways from Delaware and Maryland escape from slavery, and ultimately was found guilty and put in jail in 1847 for assisting runaway fugitives to escape from their enslavers. After being convicted, Burris was to be sold into slavery. Burris was sold in an auction to the highest bidder, Isaac Flint, who happened to be a Quaker abolitionist of Wilmington posing as a slaveholder, Burris was eventually returned to his family. 

Burris then moved to San Francisco, California, with his family. Nov. 2, 2023, marked the eight-year anniversary of former Delaware Governor Jack Markell pardoning Samuel D. Burris in the Old State House in Dover, Delaware. 

The pardon was complicated. The Delaware Board of Pardons had to first establish a pardon process. The state had never pardoned someone who was deceased. Individuals instrumental in the Burris’s pardon included Ocea Thomas, a descendant of Burris, and Robert Seeley, a descendant of Thomas Garrett, who was a well-known stationmaster of the Underground Railroad in Delaware. Seeley originally also requested the pardons of Garrett and John Hunn along with Burris. Robin Krawitz, a historian and a former Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs (HCA) staff member with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), also became involved after learning that the governor of Illinois pardoned three Underground Railroad operatives in that state. Krawitz then posted an article about that pardoning on social media and asked, “Why not here?” An attorney from Markell’s office contacted Krawitz in early 2015 about getting documentation related to Burris’s prosecution, in order to make a case to the Board of Pardons. 

The process for an official pardon also needed to be started by a relative of the person seeking the pardons. A woman from Atlanta named Ocea Thomas came to Delaware to learn about her ancestors before discovering she is a descendant of Burris’s sister, Elizabeth Burris Crammer. Letters by Ocea Thomas, Robert Seely and others were submitted to the Governor’s office requesting a pardon, which was ultimately granted. Since Burris went on trial on Nov. 2, 1847, that date was picked as the deadline for the ceremonial signing of the pardon. In 2015, a historic marker was placed in his honor on Henry Cowgill and Willow Grove Road, just south of Camden. Krawitz is currently working on and writing a book about Burris.

A historic marker shares the history of Samuel D. Burris, who was a Delaware-based conductor on the Underground Railroad.

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