This is a free excerpt from the Secrets of the Eastern Shore book, Tubman Travels: 32 Underground Railroad Journeys on Delmarva. The book tells true-life stories from the Underground Railroad, and all of those stories are linked to places that you can go visit in your travels on the Eastern Shore and in Delaware.
BIG PICTURE: Redemption Song
One thing I’ve learned in working on this book is that the stories of the Underground Railroad in the Delmarva region often take unexpected twists and turns. The writer and comedian Bertice Berry learned a similar lesson while exploring her African American roots in Delaware.
As a young sociologist at the turn of the 21st century, she wrote a novel called Redemption Song about a modern-day bookstore owner who comes across an old slave narrative. There were snippets of Berry’s own family history in that fictional narrative—it touched on the story of a white man named John Hunn.
Berry had ancestors who worked on Hunn’s farm in the 1800s. Not all that much was known about Hunn at the time she was writing the novel, and she assumed judging by the broad outlines of history we all learn in school that he must have been a “plantation” owner and that her ancestors must have been his slaves. She portrayed her fictional Hunn as the personification of evil.
Old man Hunn wasn’t so old then. He was out hunting my mama and me. He wasn’t a real catcher. Others caught slaves for money. He caught ’em for keeps.
When she shared a draft of that novel with her mother, Berry got a little pushback. Her mother had memories of elders in her own childhood telling her that Hunn had been a “good man.” Berry didn’t buy it. She figured her mother had misremembered things.
In the years that followed, historians in Delaware managed to bring to light the full story of Hunn’s work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Those historians did not have an easy job of it. While on his deathbed, Hunn had asked his family to destroy all the papers having to do with his work helping slaves. He insisted that he didn’t care one whit about what historians and writers might think of him after he was gone.
I ask no other reward for any efforts made by me in the cause than to feel that I have been of use to my fellow men.
One day, Bertice Berry found herself in front of a TV showing a documentary detailing some of that new research about John Hunn. She was stunned to learn that the man she had portrayed as the personification of evil was actually closer to the opposite. Later, she would learn that those ancestors of hers who had worked on Hunn’s farm did so not as slaves, but as free black laborers. She told a journalist:
It was a shock. I’ve used this man’s name, who was the southernmost conductor on the Underground Railroad, who remained hidden, the same way we do with everything—we think everything is black and white, good and evil, sin and righteous. You know, no! No.… There’s so much more to every story if you just look a little further.
The story of Berry’s discovery about Hunn is central to another of her books, The Ties That Bind: A Memoir of Race, Memory and Redemption.
STORY: The Flight of Sam And Emeline Hawkins
The Hawkins cabin must have been a boisterous affair. Sam and Emeline had six children living in their place in Ingleside, which remains today what it was in slavery times, a tiny hamlet in the midst of a wide expanse of farm country in the eastern reaches of Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, near the Delaware border.
The 1840 census lists all of the Hawkinses as free blacks, but that was a record-keeping mistake, actually. Sam was the only legally free member of the family. He had been born into slavery in 1808, then manumitted to free status later on. During the 1840s, he was making his living through some sort of sharecropper-like arrangement.
Emeline was 15 or so years younger than Sam. She had been a slave of the Glandings family from birth up through the early years of her marriage, when she was sold to a woman named Elizabeth Turner. The timing of that sale meant that the two eldest of Sam and Emeline’s children belonged to the Glandings, while the four younger ones were the property of Turner.
Sam tried to find a way out of this legal morass, making several offers over the years to buy the freedom of his wife and some or all of his children. But he had given up hope on that front by 1845. Late that year, he got word to a free black Underground Railroad conductor named Samuel D. Burris that he and his family were ready to make a run for freedom.
Burris showed up at their cabin somewhere around Christmastime and then led the Hawkinses on a northeasterly journey, perhaps shadowing today’s Route 301, up to Middletown, Delaware. Most people know Middletown today as a giant collection of big-box stores out on the highway, but it has a pretty, historic downtown section as well.
Another conductor and station master, the Quaker John Hunn, had a 200-acre farm on the outskirts of town. He probably guessed what was up when he saw a covered wagon approaching shortly after sunrise on December 27. Who but runaways would be traveling through a winter’s night while six inches of snow were falling?
Burris handed Hunn a letter of introduction from a mutual friend. Inside the farmhouse, the Hunn family got busy stoking the fire and making a big breakfast. Their guests were all suffering from frostbite to one degree or another.
“One man, in trying to pull his boots off, found they were frozen to his feet,” Hunn recalled in a written account of the affair that he later sent to the Underground Railroad chronicler William Still.
A suspicious neighbor mucked up the works that morning, sending word to a local constable about the strange goings-on at the Hunn farm. That constable soon arrived at the farm with a pair of slave catchers who started showing off an advertisement offering a $1,000 reward for the capture of members of the Hawkins family.
The constable asked Hunn for permission to search the farm. Hunn was in the midst of demanding that the constable go get the equivalent of a modern-day search warrant when Sam Hawkins bolted out of his hiding spot in the barn and made a run for some nearby woods. The ensuing chase ended with Sam brandishing a butcher knife, the constable pointing a gun, and Hunn pleading with both men to put down their weapons.
When things calmed down, Sam pulled out the identification papers that proved he was a free man. The constable decided to take Sam into town and have a magistrate review the documents. While waiting on the magistrate, Sam got to talking with one of the two slave catchers.
William Hardcastle “put his arm very lovingly around” Sam’s neck and drew him into conversation, offering to let Emeline and the four younger children go if Sam would only hand over the two oldest boys.
Sam went for that deal, asking Hunn to bring his family into town so that he could sort out the details. Hunn was skeptical. He asked Sam if he really believed in the promise made by this bounty hunter.
“I do not think master William would cheat me,” Sam replied.
He was wrong. When the family arrived, they were all locked up in the Middletown jail. The magistrate, a man named William Streets, soon wrote up an arrest order and sent everyone off to the jail in New Castle, 18 miles away. The party arrived there at midnight and set about rousting the local sheriff from bed.
Downtown New Castle doesn’t look all that different today from the way it did the night the Hawkins family arrived. Boasting a bevy of buildings that date to the late 1700s and early 1800s, it sits on a gorgeous stretch of the Delaware River and makes for a fine afternoon of strolling and shopping.
When the Hawkins family arrived in New Castle back in 1845, they found themselves in the sort of dire situation that usually marked the end of the road on a run for freedom. But Sam and Emeline had better luck than most.
Their first bit of good fortune involved that magistrate back in Middletown. In his later written account, Hunn refers to this judge as “my friend William Streets.” The arrest order this “friend” of Hunn’s wrote up contained a bunch of obvious mistakes. For example, it included Sam Hawkins as part of a group of escaped slaves, when everyone could see from his papers that Sam was a free man. Was Streets incompetent? Did he write up a bad order on purpose in order to try and give the family time to get away? There is no telling either way.
The sheriff in New Castle took one sleepy-eyed look at the arrest order and declared it invalid. He told the slave catchers they would have to go back to Middletown and get Magistrate Streets to write up a new one.
Here is where things got even more curious. The daughter of this sheriff apparently sent word about the predicament of the Hawkins family to the Wilmington home of Underground Railroad conductor Thomas Garrett, who then raced down to the New Castle courthouse with a lawyer in tow.
A hearing was hastily convened before Delaware’s chief justice, James Booth Jr. Interestingly, this judge just so happened to be the son of James Booth Sr., who had been a prominent Delaware lawyer at the time the state approved its constitution. The elder Booth had been a vocal supporter of a failed proposal that would have had that constitution outlaw slavery altogether.
Assuming that the younger Booth shared his father’s abolitionist sympathies, that would mean that after getting turned in by one white person and then tricked by another, the Hawkins family had somehow managed to run into five sympathetic white people in a row—Magistrate Streets, the sheriff’s daughter, Judge Booth, Thomas Garrett, and Garrett’s lawyer.
In the hearing that followed, Judge Booth agreed with Garrett’s lawyer that in the absence of a legal detention order—the slave hunters were still trying to run that down from the magistrate in Middletown—the Hawkins family should be released immediately. Sam, Emeline, and the six children were soon en route to Garrett’s home in Wilmington. From there, they crossed the border into Pennsylvania, landing eventually in the town of Byberry, which was then the home turf of yet another prominent conductor named Robert Purvis.
Not much is known about what became of the family. Like so many escaped slaves, the Hawkinses changed their name in freedom—they chose the surname of Hackett. Sam died two or three years after the family found freedom. I came across one report about how his two oldest sons signed on as apprentices to local craftsmen, but no other details about what happened to Emeline and the other children. They do seem to have stayed in the Byberry area, however, as the Hackett name has lived on through subsequent generations of blacks living in a neighborhood that is now part of the city of Philadelphia.
POSTSCRIPT: ‘If Thee Knows a Fugitive … Send Him to Me’
The Hawkins story doesn’t end with the family’s arrival in freedom. Their escape had a complicated aftermath that includes a courtroom drama that’s quite famous in Underground Railroad circles.
Those slave hunters who were after the Hawkinses did eventually make it back to New Castle with a revised arrest order, but they were too late. Furious, they filed a lawsuit against Garrett and Hunn for their part in knowingly helping slaves escape.
The trial that followed unfolded in a courtroom you can visit today at the New Castle Courthouse Museum. There is an exhibit upstairs there dedicated to the whole of the Hawkins affair.
The trial did not go well for Hunn and Garrett. They had bad luck when it came to the selection of a judge, as the case went before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, who would later become author of the infamous Dred Scott decision ruling that blacks could never be U.S. citizens. They had more bad luck when the jury for the case turned out to be full of slave owners.
The two were found guilty. That jury then went out of its way to impose fines even heavier than what the plaintiffs had asked for.
After the conviction, a sheriff approached Garrett, saying “I hope you will never be caught at this again.” Garrett replied with perhaps the most famous words of his life:
Friend, I haven’t a dollar in the world, but if thee knows a fugitive who needs a breakfast, send him to me.
Garrett proved true to his word, continuing his work as a conductor for as long as slavery was around and despite the financial troubles he experienced as a result of those heavy fines. The number of slaves Garrett helped during his long career on the Underground Railroad is hard to figure precisely, but it likely reached up over 2,000.
When slavery was finally abolished in Delaware in 1865, a good number of Wilmington blacks made an impromptu procession of gratitude to Garrett’s house. They placed the old white man in an open carriage and threw a wreath of flowers over his shoulders. According to one newspaper account,
It seemed as if the whole colored population of the state was turned loose in Wilmington to celebrate.
John Hunn, too, stayed the course. The fines imposed in that lawsuit forced him to sell his farm in Middletown. He eventually moved to nearby Camden, where he was soon back at work as a conductor. After the Civil War he moved his family to South Carolina to join in a Quaker project to start schools for newly freed blacks there.
He died in 1894 and is buried in the Quaker graveyard in Camden. One of his sons, John Jr., would be elected governor of Delaware in 1901.
TESTIMONY: ‘Abolition Gold’
The free black conductor Samuel Burris did not get caught up in the Hawkins lawsuit, but he ran into his own bit of trouble in 1847. Convicted of helping a Delaware slave named Marie Matthews try to escape, Burris was sentenced to 10 months in prison, after which he was to be sold into slavery.
His Underground Railroad friends up in Philadelphia tried to come to his rescue, secretly sending an abolitionist, Isaac Flint, down to take part in the auction. Here is how William Still describes what happened next:
When the hour arrived, the doomed man was placed on the auction-block. Two traders from Baltimore were known to be present; how many others the friends of Burris knew not. The usual opportunity was given to traders and speculators to thoroughly examine the property on the block, and most skillfully was Burris examined from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head; legs, arms and body, being handled as horse-jockeys treat horses. [Isaac] Flint watched the ways of the traders and followed for effect their example.
The auctioneer began and soon had a bid of five hundred dollars. A Baltimore trader was now in the lead, when Flint, if we mistake not, bought off the trader [by offering him] one hundred dollars [on the side to stop his bidding].
The bids were suddenly checked, and … a few moments were allowed to pass ere Flint had the bill of sale for his property, and the joyful news was whispered in the ear of Burris that all was right; that he had been bought with abolition gold to save him from going south. Once more Burris found himself in Philadelphia with his wife and children and friends, a stronger opponent than ever of Slavery.
Burris moved west eventually, settling in San Francisco, where he remained active in abolitionist causes. He died in 1863. In 2015, on the 168th anniversary of his conviction, Samuel Burris received an official pardon from Delaware Governor Jack Markell in a ceremony at the New Castle Courthouse.
–written by Jim Duffy and posted on May 4, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved. You can learn more about the book, including where to buy a copy, here. Every chapter in the book includes a section like the one below so that you can get more information and plan your travel itinerary.
NOTES: Travel Info & Resources
(1) The burial sites at Quaker meeting houses of several Delaware conductors and station masters are the subject of a Side Trip in Chapter 31.
(2) Both books by Bertice Berry mentioned in the Big Picture section are available on Amazon. In addition to her work as a writer, Berry also works as a comedian and a lecturer.
(3) The farm of John Hunn was located near where Middletown High School stands today. A few years ago, a student there led a successful effort to get a historic marker installed on school grounds commemorating the work of Hunn and other locals who helped runaway slaves on their way north.
• 120 Silver Lake Road, Middletown, Delaware; 302.376.4141
(4) Information about visiting the historic downtown area of Middletown is available from Middletown Main Street.
• MiddletownMainStreet.com; 302.378.2977
(5) The New Castle Courthouse Museum is the site of the Thomas Garrett trial and has an exhibit about the Hawkins family.
• 211 Delaware Street, New Castle, Delaware
• History.Delaware.Gov/museums; 302.323.4453
(6) Information about other things to see and do in New Castle is available from the City of New Castle.
• NewCastleCity.Delaware.gov/visiting-new-castle; 302.322.9801
(7) A historic marker in honor of Samuel Burris stands in the midst of a stretch of farmland outside of Camden, where Route 10 (Willow Grove Road) meets Henry Cowgill Road. Information about visiting Camden and nearby towns is available at Visit Delaware Villages.
• VisitDelawareVillages.com; 302.734.4888
(8) The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway runs through both Dorchester and Caroline counties in Maryland and then on into Delaware.
• Maryland: HarrietTubmanByway.org; Facebook.com/HarrietTubmanByway; 410.228.1000
• Delaware: TubmanBywayDelaware.org; Facebook.com/HarrietTubmanBywayDE/