Delaware pardons man who helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad

Delaware’s governor on Monday posthumously pardoned a man convicted of helping slaves escape along a portion of the Underground Railroad.

Gov. Jack Markell’s office pardoned Samuel Burris, a free black man, during a ceremony at Delaware’s old statehouse exactly 168 years after he was convicted of aiding runaway slaves in Delaware, which was then a slave state.

“While we cannot change what was done more than 150 years ago, we can ensure that Mr. Burris’ legacy is appropriately recognized and celebrated,” Gov. Markell said. “We affirm today that history will no longer record his actions as criminal, but rather as acts of freedom and bravery in the face of injustice.”

Several of Burris’ decedents attended the ceremony, including Ocea Thomas, who read a letter that Burris wrote to his brother while he was in jail.

“The slave trader is only doing a lawful business, encouraged and protected by the laws of the state of Delaware,” Burris wrote in 1848. “Yet I cannot forebear taking all opportunities to express great abhorrence of servitude and my passion for liberty upon any terms whatsoever.”

State leaders also unveiled a historical marker honoring Burris that has been placed by his home near Camden, Delaware.

Robert Seeley of Havertown, Pennsylvania, whose ancestors include abolitionist Thomas Garrett, led the charge to pardon Samuel Burris.

“It brings justice to Samuel Burris and his family,” Seeley said. “A wrong is finally corrected.”

Seeley is also seeking pardons for Garrett and another abolitionist John Hunn, but those men were sued in federal court, not in Delaware. Seeley plans to continue pushing for a federal apology for those two men and an official apology to all slaves held in Delaware.