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Thomas Garrett: Savior of Slaves


Thomas Garrett:                    The News Journal, August 21, 1997

Savior of Slaves

The Wilmington abolitionist who dared to turn the other cheek and make friends with his enemies gradually gets his due as a Delaware hero.

By Gary Soulsman

Staff Reporter 

     At his death in 1871, Thomas Garrett was Wilmington’s best-known citizen, eulogized as one of “the best men who ever walked on earth.”

     Few know his name today. Those who do say he was motivated by a placid self-sacrifice and courage that made him a genuine hero.

     At personal risk he gave refuge to 2,700 African-Americans fleeing slavery – more than Harriet Tubman in her 19 trips leading runaway slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

     And a growing chorus of Delawareans say the life of the 19th century iron merchant and abolitionist, who lived at 227 Shipley St., could lure tourists to Delaware and inspire the young – if his deeds were cherished and his life memorialized with statues and buildings.

     During Thomas Garrett’s life he was a much loved figure,” says Harmon Carey, executive director of the Afro-American Historical Society of Delaware. “It’s unfortunate few remember him because this is not a black or white issue. It’s a matter of knowing an important Delawarean.”

     How is it, local historians ask, that few native Delawareans even know Garrett’s name? It’s a good question to ask today since Garrett was born on this date in 1789 in Upper Darby, Pa.

     His story is the stuff of American legends. In his 20’s, historians say, Garrett had a conversion experience comparable to that of Saul on the road to Damascus, galvanizing his will against the abomination of slavery. In 1822 he relocated in Wilmington, where he was so successful in his abolitionist efforts that African-Americans called Garrett the black man’s Moses.

     Writer Harriet Beecher Stowe even modeled one of her fictional heroes – Simeon Halliday – after Garrett in the 1852 antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

     “He was truly a national figure,” says Barbara Benson, director of the Historical Society of Delaware. “His moral vision was to eliminate slavery and he devoted himself to that purpose at enormous personal sacrifice.”

     On separate occasions, he was thrown from a train and attacked by killers, but Garrett would not be deterred. He is even said to have invited the would-be killers into his house for a meal after he challenged their attack.

     Later Garrett was tried in New Castle federal court for helping runaway slaves and was fined such a princely sum he had to sell his house and possessions.  But friends came to his aid and Garrett was only determined to fight slavery, which he did for close to 50 years – long enough to see it abolished.

     When he died at almost 82, crowds filed past his casket in his home. Then to honor what he had done for all African-American people, eight black men carried his coffin on their shoulders across Wilmington’s Quaker Hill, where 1,500 mourners crammed into the Friends Meeting House for the funeral.

     “Children are hungry to know there was a man in Wilmington this heroic,” says Vivian Abdur-Rahim, director of the Harriet Tubman Historical Society in Wilmington. “Why is it the state doesn’t fully recognize the achievement of a person who has given their life for others?”

     As director of the state historical society, Benson says people don’t know nearly enough about local history. Newcomers often fail to learn about their new home and she believes many students are only taught a local history unit in fourth or fifth grades.

     Nationally, only in recent years had the Underground Railroad started to get the attention it deserves. That recognition has been slow to come because these heroes, though inspirational, were overshadowed by the Civil War and kept few records, their activities being clandestine, says Benson.

     To make Garrett’s story better known, Rahim has been leading tours of Underground Railroad sites on the Delmarva Peninsula for seven years.  


Garrett: Famed abolitionist made friends out of enemies

     Both she and Thomas Colgan of Arden believe that Garrett could be an important symbol to a city troubled by drugs and killings. They are among a small group of Delawareans devoted to the memory of Garrett, working to make his life known.

For example:

Colgan portrays Garrett for special tours of the Quaker Hill cemetery. Colgan has also written a short play about the collaboration of Garrett and Tubman after she escaped slavery and led others from bondage. Colgan is a Quaker who believes the Society of Friends needs the leadership of Garrett.

The State Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs has created a free exhibit at the New Castle Court House, in Old New Castle, comparing Garrett and William Penn, two Quakers who left their mark on Delaware and the region. Cynthia Snyder, who supervises the site, says guides also give special tours telling about Garrett’s 1848 New Castle trail with fellow abolitionist John Hunn.

Rahim is part of a committee to raise $250,000 for Quaker Hill statues of Garrett and Tubman. Rahim believes Garrett’s life would make a compelling film and is writing letters to see if she can interest a Hollywood producer. She also advocated changing the slogan of the city from “A Place to Be Somebody” to “The Last Great Stop for Freedom.”  

The Historical Society of Delaware is planning a high-tech display on Garrett in a new permanent exhibit on First State figures that will open in 1998.

MBNA Corp. recently announced the donation of the old Allied Kid tannery at 11th and Poplar streets in Wilmington for a new African-American museum that would highlight many contributions, including those of Garrett.

Bayard Marin, president of the Quaker Hill Preservation Foundation, says Garrett’s legacy and the architecture of the older section of the city could make Wilmington a mecca for African-American tourists fascinated by their history.

He proposes restoring the Quaker Hill home built by Garrett’s son Elwood on Washington Street, making it an Underground Railroad History Center. The building is one of at least 19 Quaker Hill properties Marin wants the foundation to restore.




A man of deep convictions

     A stocky and reverent man from a Pennsylvania family of millers, Thomas Garrett was taught the Quaker belief in “the divine presence in the human soul,” an idea that looked at each person as equal before God.

     Historian James McGowan writes that the most important experience of Garrett’s life occurred in 1813 when the young man returned to his Upper Darby home to find that a free black servant had been kidnapped by men intent on selling her into slavery.

     Garrett set off to Philadelphia in pursuit. On the road, he witnessed a light brighter than the sun. He told friends something about the light touched his soul and spoke of the horror of slavery.

     “A man’s duty is shown to him and I believe in doing it,” he said after rescuing the servant.

     In moving to Wilmington in 1822 – where he opened a business selling iron, coal and steel – he became part of a network of abolitionists (often called the Underground Railroad) giving food, clothes and a haven to black people who fled Southern plantations.

     When they reached Garrett’s home, slaves had almost won their freedom since Pennsylvania was a non-slaveholding state.  But Garrett’s activities exposed him to danger, writes McGowan in “Station Master of the Underground Railroad.”

     Slave owners, who paid between $500 and $2,000 for slaves, said they considered them property and Garrett’s harboring runaway slaves was against the law – like receiving stolen goods. Still, Garrett did not hide his activities, though other abolitionists were known to have been beaten and their houses burned. Garrett sought to “disarm with candor,” according to McGowan.

     One story gives a hint to Garrett’s character. A slaveholder turned up at his house one day threatening to kill Garrett if he ever came South.

     Garrett replied that he would make the journey soon and would call on the man – which he did. The two are reported to have become friends.

     On another occasion the Maryland legislature was proposing a $10,000 bounty on Garrett because he had aided so many slaves escaping Maryland plantations. Garrett wrote the legislators saying if they made the sum $20,000 he would turn himself in for the reward.

     He was bold to the point of being fearless. Even while his house was watched by slave catchers, he would walk slaves out the front door in the guise of bonneted Quaker women. He believed God was on his side and he would not fail.

     He rarely did. Even his 1848 trail for aiding an escaped family of slaves from Queen Anne’s County, Md., was a triumph. Samuel Hawkins, his wife and children were caught near Middletown --  before they reached Garrett – but he used a loophole in their arrest warrant to free them and see them to safety.

     For frustrating the slave catchers, Garrett, then 60, was tried in New Castle’s U.S. District Court and fined $5,400. After the verdict, he spoke passionately about his commitment to fight slavery and all that ever stopped him was the Civil War.

    Near the end of his life, when blacks had been freed and given the right to vote, Garrett said: “I have lived to see my Divine Master’s will well accomplished. My mission’s ended. I am ready to go.”  

TO LEARN MORE…about Thomas Garrett: 

Vivian Abdur-Rahim, Director of the Harriet Tubman Historical Society, is available for tours of the Underground Railroad. The New Castle Court House on Delaware Street in Old New Castle has an exhibit on Garrett and a special tour dealing with his U.S. District Court trial. (302) 323-4453 

Photo: Thomas Colgan of Arden visits Garrett’s grave marker at Quaker Hill cemetery. Colgan portrays Garrett during special tours there.  The News Journal/Bob Herbert, Photographer.


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