Old State House ceremony for historic marker, Markell pardon on the 168th anniversary of Burris' 1847 conviction for helping escaping slaves, and at the same building where his trial took place. The marker will be placed at Willow Grove, about 5 miles west of Camden on Route 10.
A Kent County man convicted of helping slaves escape bondage almost 170 years ago will be pardoned by Gov. Jack Markell.
Samuel D. Burris, a free black man living near Willow Grove, will have his name cleared Monday at 10 a.m. in conjunction with the unveiling of a historical marker in his honor.
“I think we have the opportunity to make right a historic injustice,” Markell said. “I think this is a person who really demonstrated steadfast courage in the face of real personal danger.”
Much of Burris’ life and the events leading to his brush with the law is well documented. Other information has only recently come to light.
The Burris family owned farmland near Willow Grove, where he was born around 1808. He was an educated man who could read and write, and this helped him assist runaway slaves to reach freedom a full decade before Harriet Tubman began her work.
In 1845, Burris, then married with a family including small children, started helping slaves escape Delaware and Maryland. After a series of successes – it’s not documented exactly how many – Burris was caught in June 1847.
Burris spent almost a year in jail before his trial in what is now the Old State House on The Green. He was convicted on two of three charges and, after serving additional time following the first verdict, could have been forced into a life of involuntary servitude by being sold into slavery by order of the court.
The intervention of abolitionists who bought Burris saved him from that fate.
‘Courage and moral fiber’
Great-great-grandniece Ocea Thomas will be present at the Nov. 2 ceremony. She will make the trip from her home in Atlanta.
She learned of plans to pardon Burris during a 2014 Delaware trip, where she saw an exhibit at the Public Archives. She passed along her contact information, and the staff helped her authenticate her connection not only to Burris, but to other relatives, in Kent County – the Guy and Shockley families.
“It’s just amazing that he risked everything,” Thomas said. A Delaware native herself, Thomas plans to be back in the First State as the historic marker is dedicated.
One of the benefits of her research is that she’s able to share information about Burris with relatives.
“I think that I am enlightening everyone else in the family,” she said. “I also hope this will generate interest so that others who may be in our family will reach out to us.”
Historian Robin Krawitz of Delaware State University is planning a Burris biography. Over the past 20 years, she has carefully researched his life using original documents, not only verifying some disputed aspects of his story but adding new information.
“He’s an interesting person because of the demonstrated courage and moral fiber he displayed with his actions,” Krawitz said. “He risked his life and his family to help people escape from slavery, and he was prosecuted more severely than anyone else in the state of Delaware for that crime.”
The record shows that after being given his freedom by the abolitionists who won the auction, Burris moved his family to Philadelphia. He continued trying to help slaves escape through Delaware. Shortly afterward, the state General Assembly passed a law that a second conviction on that charge would be punishable by 60 lashes at the whipping post.
Knowing that could prove fatal, Burris joined the gold rush and moved to California – about as far from Delaware as he could possibly go.
While there, Krawitz learned, Burris earned enough in the gold fields to bring his family west. Additional records showed he also worked as a cook on a steamship, Krawitz said.
Burris died in San Francisco, with some sources placing the date at 1863, others as late as 1869.
Krawitz knows Burris was buried in the city cemetery but does not know if the grave still exists.
Markell noted his actions on Nov. 2 are a chance to correct the wrongs of the past.
“That’s part of what this is about,” he said. “When you have the opportunity to do this in a case that’s as clear as this, you should do it.”
It’s something that Burris deserves, Krawitz said.
“We use the word too loosely now, but this man is a hero,” she said. “We’re recognizing that from this point on that we were wrong back then.”
And Burris’ story still affects Delawareans today, said historian Bev Laing of the State Historic Preservation Office.
“Children in Delaware schools are learning about a local man who chose to make decisions where the risks were enormous,” she said. “But he still made those choices, over and over again, knowing what he was risking.
“It’s important that young people today, of all backgrounds, learn this story and that they honor people like Samuel Burris.