A free black man convicted of helping slaves escape to freedom in the 19th century will be posthumously pardoned by Delaware's governor, two people who supported the pardon said Tuesday.
Ocea Thomas of Atlanta said in a telephone interview Tuesday that she received a phone call this weekend letting her know that Gov. Jack Markell would pardon Samuel Burris, a free black man and conductor on the Underground Railroad who died in the 1860s and is one of Thomas' relatives. Email and phone messages left Tuesday for Markell's spokeswoman, Kelly Bachman, was not immediately returned.
Thomas said she became emotional after learning that Burris, the brother of her great-great-grandmother, would be pardoned.
"I stood there and cried. It was pride. It was relief. I guess justification. All of that," Thomas said.
In 1847, Burris was caught helping a slave try to escape Delaware and sent to jail. He was tried and found guilty of enticing slaves to escape from their masters. Part of his sentence was that he be sold into slavery for seven years, but a Pennsylvania anti-slavery society raised money to purchase him and set him free.
Robin Krawitz, a historian at Delaware State University who is writing a book about Burris, says historians don't know exactly how many slaves he helped escape. But they do know he continued his work even after his conviction, at great personal risk. Slaveholders and sympathizers eventually complained to the state legislature, saying Burris hadn't stopped enticing slaves to leave their masters. Burris left the state when lawmakers responded with a law that could have meant a lashing so severe it would have amounted to a death sentence.
Thomas, Burris' relative, said she was told the pardon will take place Nov. 2, the anniversary of Burris' conviction. The state had already been planning to unveil a historical marker honoring Burris that day. The marker will be placed in Kent County, near where Burris grew up.
Robert Seeley, of Havertown, Pennsylvania, who had asked Markell earlier this year to pardon Burris and two other men, confirmed that he'd also been contacted about the pardon.
"It's a victory. It brings honor to the Burris family, and it brings justice for Samuel Burris and his descendants. It's making a wrong a right finally," Seeley said.
Seeley had asked the governor to pardon Burris as well as two others who had worked to get slaves to freedom: John Hunn and Thomas Garrett, one of Seeley's relatives who is credited with helping some 2,700 slaves escape. Seeley said he got the idea after outgoing Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn granted clemency to three abolitionists convicted of hiding and helping escaped slaves.
Seeley said he's been working with Markell's office, but the governor can't pardon Hunn and Garrett because they were tried in federal court, not state court. He said President Barack Obama would need to pardon them and he plans to continue to work on a pardon in their case.
"Even if it comes out to be a proclamation or a declaration or not an official presidential pardon so be it. We'll see what we can do," he said, adding there is "a lot of red tape."
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