Delaware Governor Markell pardons a historic hero

     Samuel Burris (1808-1868)

    Samuel Burris (1808-1868)

    Thank you, governor, for signing a surprising posthumous pardon for Samuel D. Burris.

    Here is John Watson’s commentary:

    In my opinion it’s about time Delaware also pushes to pardon Thomas Garrett for his work with Harriet Tubman and her Underground Railroad, freeing some 2,700 slaves.

    But first we all must give Delaware Governor Jack Markell a big thank you for signing a surprising posthumous pardon for Samuel D. Burris, who, 168 years ago, was convicted for helping slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad stopping in Delaware, a slave state at the time, going on to Philadelphia.

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    It’s reported that members of the family were with the governor at the pardoning ceremony, many gathering for the first time.

    Constance Johnson of Harrington, a fifth generation of Burris said, “It’s breathtaking. It’s really important to know who you are today.”

    Standing near a historical marker, dedicated to Burris, Johnson said meeting all these people for the first time was incredible, “I’m just so grateful and thankful for his efforts and his sacrifice and his perseverance. If it wasn’t for him we may not be here, standing and talking to you right now.”

    Later, meeting her cousin Corey Burris for the first time who said, “It’s fascinating. You felt like you are part of history.”

    Getting back to the history, we are told that efforts to pardon Samuel Burris, Thomas Garrett and John Hunn, have gone on for a very long time. Garrett and Hunn were tried in a Federal court for freeing slaves, taking the possibility of a pardon outside of Delaware authority.

    As for Burris being a free man, it’s reported that he was sentenced to 10 months in jail because he helped a slave girl get from Kent County to Philadelphia.

    Delaware state law at the time was very strict against anyone helping a slave to freedom. There was legislation saying specifically that African Americans convicted of such a crime would be fined, imprisoned and sold, (that’s right sold) as servants to the highest bidder for seven years. After Burris was released he was sold into slavery, as the law dictated, but, ironically, he was sold to an abolitionist and then set free. Now that’s a good one, I say.

    We are told that at the pardon ceremony, a family descendant, Ocea Bolden Thomas, from Atlanta, said the pardon “corrects a wrong.” She also went on to say, “…it’s exciting to me. It’s only been two years where the kinship was actually discovered, but we are sincerely proud.”

    It’s reported that Thomas and Robert Seeley, who made the initial post on Facebook about Burris, as well as Delaware State University Professor Robin Krawitz, all submitted letters documenting Burris’ history and formally requested the pardon. The effort then went to the Delaware Board of Pardons which recommended that he be pardoned.

    I think he was a man whose name we should all remember, and tell others about him and what he did.

    As I stated before, I think it’s way past the time for something to be done to correct the oversight in the life of Thomas Garrett, a man who was kicked around like a dog over and over again, surviving with the help of his neighbors, but never afraid to welcome the “riders” on the Underground Railroad, taking them to freedom.

    Governor Jack Markell, are you listening? Have you tried, and if not why not???



    John Watson is a long time observer of Wilmington and Delaware from his perch as a radio talk show host. You can write him:

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