Delaware governor pardons man who helped slaves escape

Monday was a historic day in the first state. Governor Jack Markell pardoned a Kent County man convicted one hundred and sixty-eight years ago for helping slaves escape to freedom.

While signing the pardon, Governor Markell continued, “By the authority vested in me, by the constitution of our state, I do grant Samuel D. Burris a posthumous pardon for the convictions of enticing away slaves. It is now official.”

An explosion of applause filled the Old State House in Dover after he signed.  The Old State House is the same place Samuel D. Burris, a free man, was convicted for helping slaves escape to freedom through Delaware on the Underground Railroad in 1847.

His sentenced included a fine, jail time, and being sold into slavery. He was later purchased by an abolitionist who set him free. For his family, this pardon has been a long time coming.

The person who got the ball rolling was Ocea Thomas, one of Burris’ descendants.
In January, she took a trip up to Delaware from her home in Georgia. 

Thomas continues, “I visited an exhibit at the archives, let them know that I was a relative of Samuel Burris, and that connected me with Robin Krawitz and Bob Seely.” 

Krawitz and Seely were already working on a pardon inspired by the state of Illinois.

Krawitz, a history professor at Delaware State University says, “An outgoing governor of Illinois was pardoning some Underground Railroad operatives there. We kind of started talking amongst ourselves and said why don’t we try for something like that here.”

Seely goes on, “This was a grassroots effort; once it caught on everyone wanted the same thing.” 

Thomas wrote letters to the governor’s office in May pleading their case. 5 months later, she got the call of approval. 

Thomas continues, “I just stood there and started crying so it was overwhelming to say the least.”

Burris’ family has always been proud of what he did and the pardon simply confirms what they’ve known for decades. They’re hoping he can now be a symbol for others. 

Thomas says,  “No matter what you’re station in life, and I mean he was a free person and so were his parents, is that you need to stand up for what’s actually right.”

The historians 47 ABC spoke with say they’re still pushing for more pardons.
They’re now working on cases for John Hunn and Thomas Garrett, two Quakers found guilty of helping fugitive slaves during the same time period. 

The cases against Hunn and Garrett are federal. Filing for a federal pardon for their convictions might take significantly longer. The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs has more information about Garrett and Hunn on their website.


Categories: Delaware, Local News