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The Underground Railroad in the Capital Region

The Underground Railroad in the Capital Region

The Washington, D.C., area is unique in having both a national level of Underground Railroad-related operations and a local one. As the nation's capital, the District of Columbia houses the Supreme Court, the Congress, the President, and the rest of the Executive Branch. In the District of Columbia, the Amistad and the Dred Scott cases were argued in the Supreme Court. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was debated and passed in Congress.

Before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was a means to escape from slavery to freedom. Although the District of Columbia was surrounded by slave states and was home to some of the most successful slave traders in the United States, free states like Pennsylvania, were nearby. Not always helped by an organized network, freedom seekers used their ingenuity. They fled using disguises, by water, by train, and on foot. Lear Green even mailed herself from Baltimore to the North. Freedom seekers hid wherever they could. They hid at times by passing for free in the relatively large free populations of Baltimore, Alexandria, and Georgetown. One of the most famous freedom seekers, Frederick Douglass, is commemorated at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, DC.

The Washington, DC, area was home to places of origin for escapes from plantations and city residences of those owning bondsmen. Escapes are documented, for example, at Arlington House, and Mount VernonGunston Hall, and Sully plantations in Fairfax County. Ferry Hill in Maryland is a site where several freedom seekers following the C&O Canal and the Potomac River were intercepted by the slave owners of Ferry Hill and placed in a nearby jail to await return to their masters.

At times there were Underground Railroad activists helping those escaping slavery. There is a marker at George Washington University to Leonard Grimes, born a free black in Leesburg, who was caught helping an enslaved family to escape from Virginia in 1840. Grimes was sent to the Richmond penitentiary and then migrated to Massachusetts where he continued his Underground Railroad activities. William Chaplin, a white abolitionist from New York State, has a marker in Jessup Blair Park in Montgomery County. In 1850 he was caught there on the Washington-Maryland border with a pair of freedom seekers. Fearing death while imprisoned, Chaplin jumped bail after being jailed successively in Washington and Maryland.

Courthouses are an unexpected place to commemorate Underground Railroad activities. Brentsville Courthouse and Jail in Prince William County, Virginia, was the site of jailed runaways and the imprisonment of a free man almost sold into slavery. The Loudoun County Courthouse was the site of two important trials -- that of conductor Leonard Grimes and that of Nelson Gant. Gant was caught in 1846 trying to help his wife escape from slavery after he tried to buy her freedom. Because the judge recognized their marriage and refused to make Gant's wife testify, the court released Gant for lack of reliable testimony.

Those fleeing bondage followed routes of transportation like the Rockville Pike or the Potomac River, and may have taken a chance stopping at the homes of anonymous black families. With or without help, they stowed away on northern- or European-bound ships or passed as free seamen. The ship The Pearl left from the waterfront in DC. Apprehended with over 70 enslaved passengers, the captains on The Pearl led one of the largest attempted escapes in the United States. It is marked at two points of the DC African American Heritage Trail, and a statue to two of those fleeing, the Edmonson sisters, stands in front of a former slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia. Various freedom seekers including Frederick Douglass passed through President Street Station in Baltimore. At Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, black boatmen helped those escaping slavery.

Flight from slavery to freedom did not stop until the end of the Civil War. If enslaved men enlisted in the Union military forces, they were promised freedom. The African American Civil War Memorial in Washington commemorates the heroism of over 200,000 African American men. Henry V. Plummer (associated with Riversdale Mansion, Prince George's County, Maryland) escaped from Prince George's County, to Washington, DC, and then enlisted in the Union Navy. Roosevelt Island (then called Mason's Island) is the site where the First United States Colored Troops trained. Many of these soldiers were recruited directly from enslavement.

During the war many enslaved individuals sought refuge in Union territory. Freedman's Village is near Arlington House, in what was part of Lee's plantation and is today's Arlington Cemetery. It was a model village for many of these refugees. There were so-called ‘contraband camps' for refugees from slavery at Harpers Ferry and Mason's Island, and a Freedmen's Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia. At Leesylvania State Park in Prince William County, Virginia, five enslaved individuals escaped to the US Steam Sloop Seminole in 1861 reporting Confederate troop numbers and the Freestone Point Confederate Battery location.

Information provided by Jenny Masur, Manager National Capital Region National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom

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