Governor pardons abolitionist Samuel Burris

DOVER — One hundred sixty-eight years ago Monday, a free black man named Samuel Burris was sentenced to 14 years of slavery. His crime? Helping slaves escape to freedom.

Monday, Mr. Burris not only was pardoned but also honored as a hero with more than a dozen of his descendants looking on.

As cameras flashed and people cheered, Gov. Jack Markell put pen to paper in the Old State House and formally absolved Mr. Burris of the crime of assisting escaped slaves.

“So it is my honor to be here this morning as Delaware addresses this injustice and promotes the healing that we need. Samuel Burris is a true Delawarean, I believe a hero,” the governor said to whispers of “Amen” from the crowd. “And his personal story shall remain a part of Delaware’s history.”

Samuel D. Burris

Samuel D. Burris

Mr. Burris was a 34-year-old free black living in western Kent County when he was arrested in 1847 for helping slaves escape. An Underground Railroad conductor who aided slaves in making it to the free state of Pennsylvania, he faced fines, imprisonment and slavery.

Later that year, in a sentencing that took place at what is now the Old State House, he was told of his fate: a $500 fine, a 10-month prison sentence and a 14-year enslavement.

However, when Mr. Burris was put up for auction, he was bought by a Wilmington abolitionist for $500 and freed. Mr. Burris later made his way to California, where he continued fighting to help slaves. He died on Dec. 3, 1863, 11 months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

Mr. Burris’ story has been well-known to Delaware historians for years, as historic-site interpreters told his tale to visitors at the Old State House.

Descendants have been urging Delaware to pardon him for about two years, but their cause gained a major boost about 11 months ago.

After then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pardoned three abolitionists on Dec. 31, a spark of inspiration hit Robert Seeley and Robin Krawitz. Mr. Seeley is a descendant of a Delaware abolitionist Thomas Garrett, and Ms. Krawitz is a history professor at Delaware State University. The two began pushing for Mr. Burris to be pardoned by Delaware, joining with Ocea Thomas, Burris’ great-great-grandniece.

On Monday, Ms. Thomas read a moving letter written by Mr. Burris while he was awaiting his punishment. The letter spoke of his commitment to the abolitionist cause and his belief both in the necessity of freedom and in a higher power.

Afterward, Ms. Thomas, who flew in from Atlanta, said the ceremony represents vindication but is bigger than just her family.

A historic marker in honor of Mr. Burris has been placed at the site of his home, at the intersection of Willow Grove and Henry Cowgill roads southwest of Camden and Wyoming.

Calling the granting of clemency an “awesome moment,” Gov. Markell thanked the Board of Pardons for formally recommending the change to him.

“Whereas this pardon is an extraordinary act in recognition of a historic wrong that cannot be corrected by a single stroke of a pen, but it recognizes Mr. Burris’ acts not as criminal acts but as acts of freedom and bravery in the face of injustice, and whereas remembrance of the renunciation of slavery and the slave trade that divided America and remains the original sin of our great nation, as stated by Mr. Burris, ‘Liberty is the word with me and I consider the lowest conditions in life with freedom attending to it is better than the most exalted station under the restraints of slavery,’ and therefore, I, Jack Markell, the governor of Delaware, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution of our state, do grant Samuel D. Burris a posthumous pardon for the convictions of enticing away slaves,” the governor said, reading from the pardon.

As he signed the pardon, spectators rose in a standing ovation.

It was a moment that had particular meaning for Mr. Burris’ descendants.

“They have a man that stood for something back then, and what he stood for was freedom,” Mr. Burris’ descendant Ralph Smith said.

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