Virginia’s Underground Railroad
network succeeded in sending hundreds, if not thousands, of runaways to areas as far away as the Ontario province of Canada. While we have identified and secured photographs or illustrations of wharves, steamships, and schooners on which fugitives departed, safe houses (especially churches and neighborhoods) that were used, conductors who assisted, and enslaved African Americans who ran away, we have to travel to a few northern and Canadian sites to secure the final pieces of the journey. Comparing earlier with current sites is crucial to helping people connect with history. Because the majority of those leaving Virginia found residence in Philadelphia, Boston, New Bedford, and the Ontario province, visually connecting Virginia’s Underground Railroad beyond the state’s borders is necessary. Those who escaped to points north and Canada transformed those areas to some degree. While some fugitives, like Thomas Bayne from Norfolk and John Henry Hill from Petersburg, returned home after the Civil War, the majority remained in their new homes. Although we have largely completed our research on the UGRR from local archives, we will need to travel to these sites to review the archival materials that have been identified as relevant to Virginia escapees. While the general public is familiar with Richmond native Henry “Box” Brown’s daring and inventive escape, this and other cases are usually studied in textbooks and taught by teachers in isolation. Although
a great deal of information is available about the Underground Railroad in Virginia, little of it has been collected and presented to teachers in a comprehensive format. Although the National Underground Railroad Museum has collected countless stories from cities and counties throughout Virginia, what is lacking is a comprehensive discussion that connects these individual accounts as an important part of the story of the Underground Railroad in the U.S. With its complex and interwoven waterways, Virginia functioned as the gateway for eastern North Carolina and provided a starting point for thousands of slaves. So concerned were Virginia’s authorities that fugitives were escaping in large numbers from the Old Dominion that countless ordinances were passed from 1820 until the eve of the Civil War granting power to local authorities to search and seize vessels (especially those from the North) that entered Virginia’s waterways. Scholars are familiar with the case involving Shadrach Minkins, a runaway
slave from Norfolk. The nation’s attention turned to Boston when abolitionists stormed the Court House in 1851 to “free” Minkins. While this case was typical of appeals made by slaveholders for the return of their property, it was the first one adjudicated using the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Keziah affair, involving a Delaware ship captain whose schooner, the Keziah, was captured in 1855 after leaving Petersburg with five fugitive slaves aboard. Although Captain William Baylis’ supporters petitioned the court to reduce the 40-year sentence meted out to him for this offense, he remained in Virginia’s penitentiary until March 1865. And then there are the important accounts preserved by Philadelphia’s most noted station master, William Still. Of the 785 accounts cited in his book, 40 percent involved Virginia’s fugitives. For the past several decades, scholars throughout Virginia have investigated the activities of the Underground Railroad network. This Commonwealth, with its four large urban slave centers (Norfolk, Portsmouth, Richmond, and Petersburg), provided a fluid environment for enslaved Africans and African Americans. Many of the slaves lived apart from their masters and were able to move freely throughout the town. This mobility allowed African Americans, especially those who were enslaved and hired out, to segue into a variety of port-related occupations. Like most of the industrial, commercial, or trade centers of the mid-19th century, many African Americans were well-informed about local and national events. These four cities had daily and/or weekly papers, in addition to the publications available through local churches, temperance societies, and abolitionists. These newspapers included the Norfolk Landmark, the Virginia Gazette, the Petersburg Intelligencer, the Liberator, the Norfolk Intelligencer, the Southern Argus, the Republican, the Southside
Democrat, the Daily Express, and others. As slaves moved through the streets of these cities in the 1840s and 1850s, reports came in from newspapers creating the perception that a clandestine organization was making considerable headway in undermining slavery in Virginia. One of America’s most active agents for the Underground Railroad, William Still, recorded accounts of runaways who passed through his station. Because of clues about agents and transportation resources it provided, The Underground Railroad became the most widely circulated work on the anti-slavery network and an important source of information for those studying the operation of the Underground Railroad. While Still’s account highlighted only a small cross-section of actual Underground Railroad activities, the actual numbers may never be known. However, those activities were perceived to be persuasive enough to warrant laws and numerous newspaper articles warning citizens to be observant of suspicious activities. Needless to say, Underground Railroad activities were particularly disturbing for slaveholders and slavery supporters in port areas. Rumors circulated that ships’ captains were secreting slaves out of the area, and that a very active Underground Railroad was in operation. So threatening were the efforts of abolitionists that a local Norfolk newspaper,
the Beacon, sarcastically noted the apprehension of three runaway slaves in 1855, claiming that their capture resulted from the Underground Railroad being “out of order.” Other newspaper accounts suggested that the activity was so great that the state legislature passed an act requiring all ships to be boarded and searched prior to departure. The source of most of the problems in these cities was the presence of active agents/conductors. These conductors were often skilled slaves, free Blacks, or Whites. For example, two active agents who have been identified were Henry Lewey and William Bagnall. Lewey was a Norfolk slave who used the nom de plume, “Bluebeard,” to hide his identity until he escaped 1856 when word circulated that he was a suspected Underground Railroad agent. Bagnall was a White Virginia Bank bookkeeper who may have been married to a light-skinned African American. He was credited by fugitives in William Still’s book with assisting in the escapes of numerous slaves and passing correspondence between those who had escaped and
enslaved family members still living in Hampton Roads. Concurrent with agent operatives in Virginia was the identification of steamships listed by Still as providing assistance to escapees. While some runaway slaves were secreted aboard vessels, unbeknownst to their captains and crews, most received assistance, either from captains and/or stewards of these steamships. William Still’s book listed the City of Richmond, the Pennsylvania, and the Augusta steamships, as well as the Keziah schooner, as vessels that plied the local waterways, transporting runaways to points north. A person named John Minkins was identified as a steward aboard the City of Richmond and the Pennsylvania who covertly worked as an UGRR conductor, along with Captains William Baylis, Fountain, and Henry Lee. Newspapers and city directories identified departure points in escapee accounts. Most significant was the relative isolation of Higgins’ and Wright’s Wharves in Norfolk that allowed fugitives some degree of anonymity and protection as they sought passage aboard one of the many schooners and steamships docked in port.
Underground Railroad Sites in Norfo
olk and the Waterfront of Portsmouth 8
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1. Higgins’ Wharf was located at the far end of Widewater Street near New Castle Street. The owner of the wharf was John A. Higgins, a commission agent and former owner of Shadrach Minkins, who worked on Widewater Street opposite Market Square. Steamships, such as the City of Richmond with Captain Mitchell and the Pennsylvania with Captain Teal, were Union Pacific Steamship Company vessels that left from Higgins’ Wharf every Tuesday and Thursday at noon throughout the 1850s. 2. Wright’s Wharf, located at south end of King’s lane, had steamships and schooners departing, sometimes with fugitives aboard. One steamship used to secret slaves to the North was the Augusta, captained by William C. Smith. This vessel left every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 6:30 a.m. from Wright’s Wharf. 3. Fugitives may have been assisted in their escape by the Norfolk and Western Railroad whose track ran down Widewater Street and past every major wharf along the waterfront in downtown Norfolk or by the all-Black crew operating the ferries that ran between Norfolk and Portsmouth.
4. The DeBree Home is where Shadrach Minkins, a fugitive slave in 1851, worked as a house servant. This home was located at 117 E. Main Street, a fashionable district near the Marriott hotel today. Formerly, Minkins was owned by John Higgins (who owned Higgins Wharf ) until 1849. Minkins escaped from John DeBree, a prosperous landowner and former navy man who worked as a purser at the Gosport Navy Yard. It is believed that Minkins departed Norfolk aboard either the Alvaro Lamphir or the Vesper schooners destined for Boston. Minkins eventually escaped to Montreal after he escaped from capture in Boston, living out the remaining years in Canada. 5. Slaveowner Dr. Charles F. Martin, dentist, had an office located at 31 E. Main, lived in the rear of 23 Holt Street (at the corner of Talbot Street). His slave and dental apprentice, Sam Nixon, alias Thomas Bayne, worked as a conductor on the UGRR. Sam was described as a dark-complexioned slave who, because he substituted for the doctor in all aspects of the dental trade, was able to travel about the city at all hours without being questioned. Sam eventually came under the suspicion of the slaveholders, and escaped in 1855 and went to Philadelphia. Eventually, he moved to New Bedford, MA. He would later return to Norfolk, set up his practice as a dentist, and within four years, he was elected to the city council of that city. He opened an office in New Bedford, and sought to improve himself in his profession by studying medicine, served in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War, returned to Norfolk in 1865 and entered politics, serving as the Norfolk representative to the 1868 Virginia Constitutional Convention. 6. Slaveowner Andrew Sigourney lived in the rear at 70 W. Main Street. His slave, Eliza McCoy, escaped to Philadelphia in November 1854 to join her husband, Robert McCoy, who left a month prior. She escaped because of the many things she suffered. She had been a slave on the auction block and had endured cruelties under the hand of her slave mistress. Eliza was a beautiful 38-year-old mulatto who fretted “under hardships” so much that she “always wanted to be free.” She escaped from her owner seven months before she secured passage aboard a steamer. Eliza said that when she went into close quarters of concealment, she fully understood what was meant and all the liabilities thereto. She had pluck enough to endure unto the end without murmuring. The martyrs in olden times who dwelt in “dens and caves of the earth,” could hardly have fared worse than some of these way-worn travelers.
7. William W. Hall owned Hall’s slave pen where many caught fugitives and those awaiting sale. He lived at 10 Brewer Street where Eliza McCoy’s husband, Robert McCoy worked. According to Robert, he had constantly been in the clutches of the “Negrotrader” and speculator, William W. Hall. Robert was a 28-year-old, medium sized, dark mulatto of singular intelligence whose harsh experiences resulted in chronic rheumatism and symptoms of consumption. His duties had been confined to the house, and not to the slave pen. The trader had threatened to sell Robert, and to prevent it Robert (thus) “took out.” Although he had to leave his wife, he got aboard a steamer and arrived in Philadelphia whereupon the Vigilance Committee forwarded him to New Bedford. 8. George Latimer* became the property of James B. Gray, a 33 year old machinist from Norfolk. Gray owned a steam saw mill that was located on South Duke Street near the west end of Upper Washington Street in Norfolk. Interestingly, this area was next to an inlet on the Elizabeth River where a few warehouses were located and some schooners and other small vessels were able to navigate. Latimer escaped from Norfolk in 1842 and went to Boston. He was recognized on a Boston street by a Norfolk visitor and his owner, James B. Gray, was contacted. Gray went to Boston and had Latimer arrested. A mob of 300 people crowded the court house to prevent him from being carried out of the city. Gray was so overawed by the strong show of support for Latimer that he accepted $400 for the man for whom he had previously paid $800. He was afraid that the court or the mob would free the fugitive, so he accepted the money. Later, George, and his wife Rebecca, moved to Chelsea where they had three sons and one daughter. Their youngest son, Lewis Latimer, became an electrical engineer and famous inventor. *Photo courtesy: Massachusetts Historical Society
9. Slaveowner B. T. Bockover was a commissioning merchant and grocer whose business was located at 25 Roanoke Square. He owned Thomas and Frederick Nixon who escaped to Philadelphia in November 1855 aboard the famous Captain Alfred Fountain’s vessel, along with 19 other people. Thomas Nixon was about 19 years of age, of a dark hue, and quite intelligent. He had not much excuse to make for leaving, except,
that he was “tired of staying” with his “owner,” as he “feared he might be sold some day,” so he “thought” that he might as well save him the trouble. Thomas was a member of the Methodist Church; his master was of the same persuasion. Frederick Nixon was about 33 years of age, and belonged truly to the wide-awake class of slaves, as his marked physical and mental appearance indicated. He had a more urgent excuse for escaping than Thomas; he declared that he fled because his owner wanted “to work him hard without allowing him any chance, and had treated him rough.” Frederick was also one of Mr. Bockover’s slaves who left his wife, Elizabeth, with four children in bondage in Eatontown, North Carolina. 10. Slaveowner March Seth, sold groceries, iron, and agricultural instruments at 13 W. Widewater Street (near 21 and 22 Rothery’s Lane). He lived in the rear of 31 N. Cumberland Street. His slave, Henry Washington, alias Anthony Hanly, escaped to Philadelphia in June 1855. Henry was a 50-year-old dark-skinned slave who left Norfolk and a “very mild master” out of sheer disgust for the patriarchal institution. Henry was only allowed to keep $1.50 per week to pay his board, clothe him, and defray all other expenses. This left no room for him to provide for his wife Sally, who was also enslaved. After passing through William Still’s station, he settled in St. Catharines, Canada, with the assistance of the Reverend Hiram Wilson. While there, he received word that his wife had died from Joseph G. Selden, a friend in Norfolk, who informed him that his clothing was forwarded to him by Jupiter White. 11. In November 1855, Captain Alfred Fountain left for Philadelphia with 21 fugitive slaves. His schooner, loaded with wheat, was located probably docked at the wharf in Roanoke Square because of the number of hay, wheat, and grain dealers. The owner of Thomas and Frederick Nixon, B. T. Bockover, was a commissioning merchant and grocer at Roanoke Square. After the Nixon brothers boarded Fountain’s schooner, a group of city leaders, led by Mayor William Lamb, boarded the ship to search for escaped slaves. Fountain’s bravado saved the day when the men came aboard with axes to tear the ship apart. He said, “Now if you want to search,” he continued, “give me the axe, and then point out the spot you want opened and I
will open it for you very quick.â€? While uttering these words he defiantly struck his ship with the axe several times, splinters flying everywhere. Soon, the men were convinced that no slaves were on board and Fountain left Norfolk with 21 fugitives. 12. Norfolk Ferry that landed at Market Square where fugitives disembarked from Portsmouth to find a schooner or steamship from which to escape. This ferry began operation in 1829. 13. High Street Ferry (operational after 1856â€”still in service) was the site of the ferry from Portsmouth after 1856. When relocated, it was in the heart of the business district at the end of High Street. 14. North Street Ferry in Portsmouth was operational until 1856. It lay at the end of a three mile waterfront stretch that transported residents and visitors only a quarter mile across the Elizabeth River to Market Square in Norfolk. Originally the ferry was established in 1705 on North Street (originally called Ferry Street), a remote section of town. 15. Crawford House was a boarding house, located near the corner of Crawford Parkway and High Street that was frequented by ships captains, crews, and passengers arriving on the schooners and steamships. Underground Railroad operative and slave, Eliza Crawford House Bains, worked in the Crawford House. Although initially a residence, the Crawford House was later transformed into a large hotel and boarding house around 1835. The house was located five blocks from the North Street ferry dock and across from the post office on the southwest corner of Queen and Crawford Streets. City records indicated that at least 55 ship captains resided in Portsmouth during this period. Many of those owned their own vessels and stayed at the Crawford House while others owned their own homes in the downtown district. The Crawford House located on Crawford Parkway, ca. 1960s. The building was demolished in July 1970. This four storied building housed many visitors, especially captains of schooners and steamships, to Norfolk and Portsmouth. Fifteen fugitives escape from Norfolk and Portsmouth on July 1856.
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Above: This 1855 broadside depicts the Boston arrest and trial under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 of Richmond fugitive Anthony Burns. Top Right: The Norfolk-Portsmouth Ferry traversed the Elizabeth River as an important access point for Norfolk and Portsmouth fugitives. Middle Right: Lewis Hayden, Boston abolitionist who assisted Shadrach Minkins. Right: In 1856, Harperâ€™s Magazine artist, David Hunter Strother, illustrated the image of maroon leader, Osman, in the Great Dismal Swamp, a favorite hiding place for escaped slaves.
In 1857, Norfolk and Portsmouth fugitives—John Stinger, Robert Emerson, Anthony and Isabella Pugh, and Stebney Swan—escape aboard Captain Edward Lee’s skiff.
India Wharf Stave Yard, located just east of Higgins’ Wharf at 14 Nivision Street.
Information compiled and written by Cassandra Newby-Alexander. For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org