civilwartelegram

A telegram sent during the American Civil War

The Underground Railroad was set up to help slaves escape into freedom by secretly transporting them to states that didn’t have slavery. It was not an actual railroad, but a network of people willing to hide slaves and help them reach freedom. The final stop for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad was on Shipley Street in the city of Wilmington, Delaware, which was at that time a slave-holding state. It was at the home of Thomas Garrett, a Quaker merchant. Throughout his life he gave more than 2,700 slaves a safe place to stay until they could find their way to New Jersey or Pennsylvania where they could be free.

Garrett was very committed to doing everything he could to help the cause of abolishing slavery and this cost him dearly throughout his life. The state of Maryland put an arrest warrant out for him with a $10,000 reward. His federal court fines were so high that in 1848 he became bankrupt and was only able to stay in business thanks to the charity he received from friends who were also involved in the abolitionist movement. Throughout the Civil War his life was constantly being threatened so he had African Americans volunteering their time to protect him. In spite of all these travails, Garret stood his ground, never wavering in his fight against oppression and slavery.

Today Thomas Garratt is recognized in Delaware as one of their most honourable citizens. But the truth is that he was actually born in Pennsylvania, in the Upper Darby section in August 1789. During his childhood his parents hid runaway slaves on their farm, so he was taught at a very early age that freedom was a right of all humans. When he was a young adult one of their family servants was kidnapped and forced to be someone’s slave. Garrett was able to track them down and help them escape to safety. This left an indelible mark on his psyche and set the stage for his later work in helping runaway slaves find freedom.

At the age of 33 Garrett moved to Delaware, but by then his Quaker religious upbringing had formed his personal beliefs and convictions. These pit him against the state of Delaware as far as slavery was concerned. Within a few short years he had taken up the cause again, doing everything he could to assist runaway slaves and this continued on for the next 4 decades.

Garrett and another abolitionist named John Hunn were finally caught and convicted in 1848 of helping the Hawkins family escape the clutches of slavery in Maryland. U.S. Chief Justice Roger Taney in the courthouse in New Castle, Delaware fined both men so much money that they were left penniless. After the fine was announced Garrett stood up and gave a highly emotional speech indicating he would not be deterred. So moving was his speech that one of the slave holding jurors reached out and shook his hand. He stated, “I declare to thee your honour and to all sitting in this courtroom, that if you or anyone else knows a fugitive looking for help, direct him to Thomas Garrett for friendship and shelter.”

The 15th Amendment

Garrett never stopped fighting the inequalities in society, even after the Civil War was over, taking on the role of advocate on behalf of former slaves who were being denied their rights. In 1870 the 15th Amendment to the Bill of Right was passed. This gave African Americans in the U.S. the right to vote. His supporters had been so grateful for his help in this endeavour that they paraded him through the city streets, calling him “Our Moses.”

Thomas Garret passed away on January 25, 1871. Friends and supporters from all walks of life attended his funeral, including so many people that he’d help in their quest for freedom. His coffin was carried on the shoulders of those who loved and admired him to his final resting place on the grounds of the Wilmington Friends’ Meeting House in Quaker Hill at 4th and West Streets, where there is a small cemetery.


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