For some, Pamlico River was part of the Underground Railroad
Dressed as a 19th-century North Carolina slave, Leesa Jones, executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum, tells the story of the journey to freedom endured by thousands of slaves.
Housed in an old caboose at the corner of Main and Gladden streets, the museum is small but packed with information and artifacts from when slaves were a part of life in Washington. While the artifacts and wanted poster reprints for the runaways are fascinating, Jones and his storytelling are what really bring the story to life.
As she describes the journey, what emerges is an intertwining of moral outrage, courage and ingenuity.
It was slaves and their need to be free and a network of abolitionists fierce in their challenge to slavery that created the Underground Railroad. Although many of the people who were part of it were white, the effort crossed racial and cultural boundaries, Jones points out.
“Not all abolitionists were white. They were Native Americans, they were Italians, they were immigrants, they were Germans. They were people from all walks of life,” she said.
Jones draws particular attention to William Still, one of the best known and most effective abolitionists. A black Philadelphia businessman, he was born across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in 1821 in Burlington, New Jersey, and in 1847 began working for the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Three years later, he became the chairman of the society’s Vigilance Committee, the arm of the society that actively brought slaves to freedom.
Still is particularly important because of his 1872 book “The Underground Railroad”, which is notable because the stories of the slaves are told almost entirely through their letters, correspondence and interviews.
The book includes William Jordon’s story (page 129) that Still tells, describing why a person would choose to live for 10 months in the swamps and three months in a cave, “surrounded by bears, wild cats, snakes at bells and love.”
“Under Governor Badger (sic, probably Senator Edmund Badger), of North Carolina, William had experienced slavery in its most odious form. Admittedly, he had been only twelve months under the yoke of this high official. But William’s experience, in that short time, was of a very painful nature,” Still wrote.
In Still’s account, Jordon became Badger’s property when the white man married his third wife. Badger and his wife were not good masters of Jordon and Jordon’s wife.
“Both the governor and his wife were equally severe towards them; would shamefully deprive them of clothing and food, even if they were not whipped as often as others,” he said.
What ultimately caused Jordon to escape slavery was separation from his wife.
“(H)his honor made it clear to him that the idea of traveling two hundred miles to see his wife was nonsense… ‘If I said it, I didn’t mean it,’ his honor said. “
In his book, Still includes letters describing the conditions endured by many runaway slaves. A letter from prominent abolitionist Thomas Garrett about three men who arrived from the South and needed a place to stay is similar to a number of other letters.
“Respected friend, William Still,” wrote Garrett, “I write to inform you that Captain Fountain arrived this evening from the South with three men, one of whom is nearly naked and very ugly (covered with lice). He’s been in the Carolina swamps for eighteen months…I’ll send them tonight, but I’ll have to get two of them clothes before I can send them by rail.
The origin of the term “underground railway” is unclear. Many sources place the first use of the term in 1831 when Kentucky slave Tice Davids swam the Ohio River to the free state of Ohio with his master hard on his tail. An Ohio abolitionist named Rush Sloane claimed that when Davids’ master returned home empty-handed, he blamed the escape on an Underground Railroad.
By 1840, the term was in general use to describe the network of safe houses, drivers, and others who actively helped enslaved people to freedom.
Located at the mouth of the Pamlico River, antebellum Washington was a bustling industrial port, second only to Wilmington as the state’s busiest port, and was ideally located to help escape the servitude offered by the Underground Railroad.
“In 1850, Washington was the largest shipbuilding port in North Carolina. And he only rivaled Wilmington in size,” Jones said.
His observation is confirmed by an East Carolina University research paper, “The Castle Island Ships’ Graveyard: The History and Archeology of Eleven Wrecked and Abandoned Watercraft”, written in 2006 by Bradley A. Rodgers and Nathan Richards.
“In 1849, John Myers and Sons were building steamships in the harbour. The company completed two steamships that year,” according to the authors. “The following year, Washington ranked first among shipbuilding centers in North Carolina. A census taken in 1850 documented 23 shipbuilders living in Beaufort County.
Jones said the Port of Washington was a center of international commerce, and the state’s exports of agricultural products and naval stores were shipped to destinations as diverse as the northeast coast of the United States and Canada, Europe and the Caribbean. These ships with their ports of call around the world were a route to freedom for slaves.
“Freedom seekers used this river,” she said, “to get their freedom literally anywhere a ship could go.”
What she describes was a vast network of people and places that gave Southern slaves a chance to be free before the Civil War.
“You could get your freedom not only in the north and in Canada,” she said. “People don’t realize the Underground Railroad ran south.”
She points to Fort Mose (pronounced Mo-say), a small colony of free people of color that existed just outside of St. Augustine, Florida. The city, sanctioned by the provincial governor when it was under Spanish rule in 1738, was “the first lawfully sanctioned free black city in the present-day United States,” according to the Florida History Museum.
Jones describes a remarkably sophisticated network that included phrases and code words that were commonly used but which, only to the trained ear, delivered a message of hope.
“Let’s say (you’re) standing here and having a conversation with me. And let’s say that (someone) says to me: ‘Tomorrow at the depot, we’re going to have breakfast. We are going to have ham and eggs,” she said.
To the untrained ear it sounds like an invitation to breakfast, but to the conductors and passengers of the underground railway the meaning was quite different.
Depot, she explained, would be almost any meeting place agreed upon earlier.
“It could be a cemetery, could be a place by the river, could be a place in the woods, could be a cave. Wherever we had previously agreed to meet. Breakfast indicates a specific type of meeting. Ham an adult. Eggs more than two kids,” she said.
Yet this only indicates the complexity of the slaves’ journey to freedom.
A number of pilots and captains of the ship who called Washington their home port were enslaved. There was little motivation for them to escape their bondage – their skills were highly prized, and they were often quite well off and many had families they could not return to if they left. Still, if the black pilots and captains were unwilling to escape, Jones said she believed they would often help others.
“They could tell you everything,” she said. And if they weren’t seeking freedom themselves, they often turned a blind eye to fleeing stowaways. Still’s book is filled with stories of Underground Railroad passengers hiding in ships as they traveled north to Philadelphia or other free ports.
For Jones, who grew up in Washington, the stories she heard as a child are part of her own journey of discovery. Her grandmother told stories of her ancestors coming to America “in the snow,” and she wondered because there is rarely snow in Washington.
And then she realized, “Snow was the name of the slave ship coming from West Africa.”
As a child, she spent her summers in Philadelphia and remembers hearing adults say, “Someone went to Timbuktu. All I knew about Timbuktu (was that) it was in Africa.
But what she learned later was that Timbuktu was one of New Jersey’s first African-American settlements. According to the New Jersey State Library, the community dates to 1826. It is located in Mount Holly, about 3 miles southwest of Burlington.
For Jones, the process of uncovering the stories of the Underground Railroad has been a journey of discovery that keeps uncovering more stories to tell about the people who believed so strongly in the freedom of others. And as these stories are revealed, different ways of understanding what happened will continue to unfold.
“History really is like a diamond,” she said. “The more you turn it, the more you’re going to see.”