Underground Railroads…Over Water

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Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 7.09.55 PMIn the parlance of the UGRR, a conductor was one who helped lead freedom-seekers to stations, run by a stationmaster, where they could rest and be fed and made ready for the next stage of their journey.  William Still in his 1872 Underground Railroad, writes of many occasions in which conductor and stationmaster were the same.  Many ship captains had the courage and dedication to freedom to risk their vessels and their own freedom in this selfless work, and shipping was and is a highly efficient way of moving cargo.

James McGowan, in his biography of Thomas Garrett, analyzed the escape stories recounted by Still, concluding that 202 were by boat.  Because some of the ship captains were natives of Wilmington, a good many freedom-seekers were brought to Thomas Garrett for dispersal northward.  

One of the boldest, most successful conductor/stationmasters was a man whom Still referred to simply as Captain F.  We now know he was Alfred Fountain.  According to Still, he was a man, “of rough and rugged appearance…not calculated to inspire the belief, that he was to be entrusted with the lives of unprotected females and helpless children” (pp. 161-62).  Despite his appearance—or perhaps even because of it—he was highly successful at secreting fugitives from Virginia ports, such as Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk.  Once he brought 28 fugitives to Still’s Pennsylvania Anti-slavery Society.  

As the country approached the advent the Civil War, Southern states were growing increasingly defensive, even paranoid about escaping slaves and those who facilitated those escapes.  That fervor was shown in last week’s column about poor Reverend Green, sentenced to a decade in prison simply for owning Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  

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Another example was the reaction of the city of Norfolk to Fountain in November, 1855.  Because a large number of the city’s slaves had just escaped, suspicion fell on the northern ship, tied up in harbor with a cargo of wheat.  Led by Norfolk’s mayor himself, a “posse” of slave catchers stormed on board and began searching.  They looked in all the obvious places.  They thrust long spears into the wheat, hoping to draw them out with blood to confirm their suspicions.  Others took axes and began chopping up the ship’s planking.  

Fountain took charge of the situation.  Grabbing an axe from one of the posse, he challenged the mayor, “Now if you want to search…point out the spot you want opened and I will open it very quick” (p. 167).  He then began to hack away at one spot, doing greater damage than the slave-seekers had done.  He did so with such ferocity that the mayor and his posse were convinced and retreated off the ship.

In Catch-22, Joseph Heller wrote, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”  Hizzoner the Mayor was right.  Captain Fountain sailed away with a badly damaged ship—and 21 fugitives, on their way to freedom.