‘One More Soul Got Safe!’ is an excerpt from my book, Tubman Travels: 32 Underground Railroad Journeys on Delmarva. Each chapter in the book is a self-contained story from those Underground Railroad days. Each story is linked to a place you can visit today in Delaware or on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but they are also perfectly fit for armchair reading in the comfort of your home.
BIG PICTURE: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Looking back with 21st-century eyes, this question can seem a no-brainer. Who would choose a life in slavery? Who wouldn’t make a run for it?
We mainly hear nowadays about the slaves who chose to run. They’re the ones celebrated in school lessons and books like this. But lots of enslaved people elected to stay put and live out their lives in bondage, even when given a chance to run. The question of why lies at the heart of this story, in which Rachel Ross makes one decision and Josiah Bailey makes another.
In an audiobook I listened to, the author of a history of this time period tried to set up the choices facing slaves as they considered escaping. The run-for-freedom side of the ledger in that book was all hope and possibility, while the stay-in-slavery side was all brutality and forced ignorance.
I think that’s too simplistic. Yes, life in slavery tended to be filled with cruelty and hardships, but that’s not all there was. The lives of slaves were also filled with the miraculous stuff of the human heart—love and joy and faith and fellowship. Slaves felt the bonds of family just as surely as any free person—the hardships that they endured together may even have strengthened those bonds.
Making a run for freedom often meant walking out on parents, spouses, and children. Sometimes, it meant worse than that: The owners of successful runaways often punished the family members left behind, selling off parents or siblings or sons or daughters to faraway plantations.
Consider, too, the risk of failure. We don’t have precise statistics on how many runaways got caught in Underground Railroad times, but there is no doubt that it was a big number. The punishments inflicted in such cases were often brutal—the accounts in slave narratives about the whipping sessions involved can make your stomach turn. Failed runaways, too, were often sold off into the Deep South.
Should I stay or should I go? The question was anything but a no-brainer.
STORY: ‘Glory to God! One More Soul Got Safe!’
This is a story about two souls, actually, but that headline is quite correct. Only one soul will get safe in the end, and that’s the one belonging to a man named Josiah Bailey. The other soul at the center of this story is Rachel Ross, one of Harriet Tubman’s sisters.
Pretty little Tubman-Garrett Park in downtown Wilmington is as good a place as any to think about these two people and the decisions they made. The Christina River, which runs along the park here, was a sort of tipping point on the journey to freedom in slavery days.
This river was the last major geographic hurdle runaways had to get over before they crossed into Pennsylvania and arrived at Philadelphia, a city that was both big enough and filled with enough anti-slavery activists to offer genuine safe harbor.
A Philadelphia abolitionist found himself in conversation one day with a frustrated slave master, who summed things up this way: “There is no use in trying to capture a runaway slave in Philadelphia. I believe the devil himself could not catch them [once they] get here.”
Tubman-Garrett Park, then, is where the odds of success turned in favor of the runaway. From the edge of the river, you can see the modern-day incarnation of the Market Street bridge off to the right. It’s a structure that looms large in the story of Josiah Bailey’s run for freedom.
Josiah was not on Harriet Tubman’s radar when she set out for the Eastern Shore in the fall of 1856. She was coming to carry her sister, Rachel, out of slavery.
Tubman had eight siblings in all. By this point, she had already helped four brothers make their way to freedom. Three of her four sisters were beyond reach, having been sold off to the Deep South years before. That left Rachel, the last of the siblings still in slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
We have no record of what Rachel looked like. Her master never needed to take out a newspaper ad describing her appearance and offering a reward for her capture. She never made it to William Still’s place in Philadelphia, where the meticulous keeper of Underground Railroad records might have jotted down his impressions about the sort of woman she was.
All we know is that Rachel said no. We don’t even know how she and Harriet communicated. Could they have met in person? More likely, they exchanged messages through the Underground Railroad grapevine.
Family loomed large in Rachel’s decision. Her two children were off living on some other farm when Harriet arrived. Perhaps they had been hired out in routine fashion. Or perhaps their owner, knowing that five of Rachel’s siblings had already run away, separated mother from children in order to make it harder for Rachel to run.
There is no telling what was in Harriet Tubman’s heart when she got word of Rachel’s refusal. But Tubman was never one to wallow for very long in disappointment. If she had to go back north without her sister, she might as well take some other slaves out of bondage while she was at it.
We do know what Josiah Bailey looked like. He stood 5 feet, 10 inches tall. His skin was the color of chestnuts, his head was bald, and he had a scar on his cheek. That scar was probably on the left side, though Joe’s owner could not remember for sure. William Still found him to be a “civil,” “polite” man, blessed with “good common sense” and “well-qualified” to serve as a leader.
Everyone called him “Joe.” In slavery, Joe was something of a rock star. Through most of the early 1850s his owner had hired him out to a timberer and farmer named William Hughlett. Hughlett had a pretty big operation at Jamaica Point, which is just up the Choptank River from Cambridge, but on the Talbot County side. By serving as an overseer for perhaps as many as 40 slaves, Joe saved Hughlett the considerable extra expense of hiring a white man for the job.
Joe was so valuable that Hughlett eventually agreed to buy him for the exorbitant price of $2,000. There are a couple of different versions about why Hughlett whipped Joe Bailey shortly after making this purchase. One involves punishment for a minor dispute with another slave over a few dollars. The other portrays the whipping as part of a cruel game Hughlett liked to play in order to show his new slaves who the boss was.
Joe pleaded with Hughlett that day: “Habn’t I always been faithful to you?”
Hughlett agreed, telling Joe that he had proven himself a “good nigger” and a hard worker. “But the first lesson my niggers have to learn is that I am master … [and] so the first thing they’ve got to do is to be whipped.”
Joe took that whipping, but something snapped inside of him amid the pain and humiliation. Getting dressed to go back to work afterward, he vowed to make sure he would never have to endure another whipping.
“Dis is de last,” he told himself.
As the manager of a timbering operation, Joe had lots of connections with blacks whose work took them up and down the rivers of the Eastern Shore and into the big cities beyond the region. He had no doubt heard about the Underground Railroad. He had heard, too, about the woman with a growing reputation as a modern-day Moses. Shortly after that whipping, Joe commandeered a boat and sailed up the Choptank to Poplar Neck, where Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, had a cabin. He asked Ben to tell Harriet that he was ready.
It was thanks to Rachel’s decision to stay that Joe got his chance to go. He brought along a brother, William Bailey, who had also endured a recent whipping. Two others, Peter Pennington and Eliza Manokey, joined the party as well.
This is where that Joe-Bailey-as-rock-star business started to work against them. Just as Hughlett had paid an extraordinary price to buy Joe, he now offered an extraordinary reward for his capture, $1,500. That made this party priority number one for pretty much everyone in the business of catching runaway slaves.
The journey to Wilmington usually took a few days. This time, it took a couple of weeks. Tubman used every conducting trick she knew. She split up the runaways, stashing them individually in different safe houses for days a time. At one point, Joe and his fellow runaways were hiding in potato holes while slave catchers passed within a few short yards.
Their progress was laborious—through East New Market, onto Poplar Neck, and then into Delaware, into Sand Town and Willow Grove and Camden and Dover and Smyrna and Blackbird. Finally, they made it to Wilmington, only to find themselves stuck on the wrong side of that last geographical obstacle, the Christina River. Slave hunters were gathered like a flock of vultures at the Market Street bridge.
Tubman sent out calls for help through the Underground Railroad grapevine, and word of her troubles soon made their way to her trusted compatriot, the conductor Thomas Garrett. He was the one who devised an ingenious plan to get the runaways over the river.
One morning in late November, a team of black bricklayers made their way in a wagon across the bridge from north to south. They made quite the raucous display of themselves, singing and shouting all the way, seemingly en route to another day of manual labor.
That evening, they returned, crossing the bridge from south to north and repeating the same raucous display of singing and shouting. No one thought to search the wagon where Joe Bailey and his fellow runaways lay hidden under the stacks of bricks.
When they finally arrived at the Philadelphia home of William Still, he recorded a few details from the interviews with the runaways. Those notes included this tidbit about Joe Bailey: “Although a married man, having a wife and three children (owned by Hughlett), [Joe] was not prepared to let his affection for them keep him in chains—so Anna Maria, his wife, and his children Ellen, Anna Maria, and Isabella, where shortly widowed and orphaned by the slave lash.”
Rachel stayed with her children. Joe left his children behind. That’s why this story always leaves me pondering the question posed up near the top here: Should I stay, or should I go?
There is one more interesting turn to the story of Joe’s escape. Tubman said later that Joe’s good spirits and leadership qualities were on display through all of the complications, detours, and near misses this party endured on the way up to Philadelphia. His voice was always “the loudest and the sweetest” of the runaways, she recalled.
Joe thought he had reached his goal by making it into Pennsylvania. But he was wrong. The next stop on the party’s journey was New York City, and there the mere sight of Joe Bailey caused one white Underground Railroad activist to exclaim, “I am glad to see the man whose head is worth fifteen hundred dollars!”
This man had recognized Joe from the description on Hughlett’s reward posters, which were apparently on display all the way up in New York. The news that he was still being hunted, all these hundreds of miles away from home and in a free state, shook Joe to the core.
He asked how far it was to the Canadian border, and someone showed him on a map. At the sight of all the ground he still had to cover on the road to freedom, Joe sank into a deep depression. Here is how Tubman described the change:
From that time Joe was silent. He sang no more; he talked no more; he sat wid his head on his hand, and nobody could [a]rouse him or make him take [interest] in anything.
Even as they reached the bridge that would take them into Canada, Joe remained morose. Tubman urged him at one point to take a moment to admire the sight of Niagara Falls, but Joe refused. Finally, as the train they were aboard crossed over the crest of the bridge and made the official crossing into Canada, Tubman managed to shake Joe out of his depression. “Joe,” she said, “you’re in Queen Victoria’s dominions! You’re a free man!
Joe’s head came up at last. He began to cry. He cast his eyes toward heaven. “Glory to God and Jesus too! One more soul got safe!”
Soon, he was singing and shouting. And repeating: “Glory to God and Jesus too! One more soul got safe!”
As he got off of the train, a small crowd of white people gathered around him, some apparently moved to tears by the depth of his joy. One woman reached out to Joe with a handkerchief so that she might help wipe away a few of his tears. Joe had one more joyous shout in him that day: “Only one more journey for me now, and dat is to Hebben!”
NOTES & TRAVEL RESOURCES
(1) More information about the book Tubman Travels, including where to buy it in stores and online, is available at this link.
(1) The Joe Bailey here in ‘One More Soul Got Safe!’ is almost certainly the same “Joseph Baily” mentioned in a letter from Sam Green Jr. to his father, the Rev. Samuel Green. The story of that letter is in Chapter 11.
(2) Harriet Tubman would make at least one more attempt to bring her sister Rachel out of bondage. That story is in Chapter 9.
(3) Be sure to check out the dramatic sculpture of Thomas Garrett and Harriet Tubman that’s in the middle of Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park. It’s by the artist Mario Chiodo. The park is located at the corner of Water and South French streets, Wilmington, Delaware. Information: 302.425.4890.
(5) There are two places to turn to for information about other things to see and places to go in Wilmington.
• Riverfront Wilmington: RiverfrontWilm.com; 302.425.4890
• Wilmington and Brandywine Valley Tourism: VisitWilmingtonDE.com; 800.489.6664
(6) The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway runs through both Dorchester and Caroline counties in Maryland and then on into Delaware.
(7) THANK YOU SO MUCH for spending a little time today with this true story from the life of an incredible and inspiring woman.