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Excerpt: 'Escape on the Pearl'

'Escape on the Pearl'

On the overcast evening of April 15, 1848, at around 9:00 pm, a soft clump of dirt struck the window of a small servant's room above the kitchen in the spacious and well-appointed home of a prominent businessman in Washington, D.C. in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood just west of the President's House.

That evening, the noise at the upstairs window alerted thirteen-year-old Emily Edmonson, a still slightly plump girl on the verge of womanhood with a warm brown complexion. Lifting the window, she saw her older brother Samuel, about 5' 6" tall and fair-skinned like his mother, standing at the side door of the house. He had come from an elegant home not far from the Capitol, where he worked as a butler in the home of Washington's most successful and prominent lawyer.

Emily quickly picked up a small bag and quietly slipped through the house and out the door into the sleepy neighborhood. She and her brother began walking east near a factory on 17th Street that produced ice cream which could be delivered to a customer's door for $2.50, a hugely expensive treat at a time when an acre of nearby Maryland farmland cost about $15 and skilled workers earned around $1.25 a day.

Emily and Samuel carefully made their way through the unlit and largely unpaved streets. Unlike New York, Boston, St. Louis, Louisville, Baltimore, or Newark, the city lacked any organized system of modern streetlights and public lighting was limited to the whale oil that burned in a few dozen 12-foot high iron street lamps along Pennsylvania Avenue designed by Charles Bullfinch, the architect of the capitol's low copper-sheathed wooden dome.

The darkness served them well as brother and sister made their way to the private home near thirteenth & G Streets where their sister Mary worked. Emily cautiously called up to her from the back of the house and Mary quickly opened the window above them and, to prevent alerting anyone, tossed out her shoes. Fifteen-year-old Mary carried herself with a grave countenance that was just as lovely as her younger sibling and had a particularly spiritual and winsome personality that immediately won over all she met.

Picking up her small bundle of belongings, Mary joined Emily and Samuel outside the house and quickly slipped on her shoes. With a half-hour walk ahead of them and time running short, the three Edmonsons set off at a brisk pace, but not so fast so that they drew untoward attention. This was not a night to answer awkward questions about where they might be going when they were so close to the 10:00 curfew bell that rang for all blacks, free or enslaved.

The three Edmonsons were slaves and they were moving carefully towards the Potomac River where a schooner from the North was waiting to take them on a journey to freedom. They were leaving behind an unusually close, highly spiritual, and even modestly prosperous family. Their parents, Paul and Amelia, lived on a forty-acre farm about 15 miles north of the city in Norbeck, Maryland, not far from the Quaker settlement of Sandy Spring.

Even though Paul Edmonson was a free man and owned his farm, all of his children were born enslaved because his wife, Amelia Edmonson, was owned by a mentally deficient woman named Rebecca Culver and was enslaved when she gave birth to them. The law was clear in all slave jurisdictions – a child's legal status flowed from the mother. By 1848, she had given birth to at least 14 children and thirteen were still living. She and her husband kept their children with them but only until each became old enough to be hired out to work, with their wages accruing to their owners. It was an arrangement that many slave owners found suitable.

On their way to the Potomac River that night, the Edmonson sisters and their brother Samuel crossed Pennsylvania Avenue, the 160-foot wide expanse that links the U.S. Capitol to the White House and beyond in both directions, which most residents referred to simply as the "Avenue." It had become the spine that gave structure and life to the city with shops, hotels and boardinghouses scattered along its length. There was more choice than to be expected from the backwater the city was so often called. Magruder & Co. touted 300 pairs of Moroccan walking "slips," while Mr. Kahl offered an assortment of superior Piano Fortes and a "splendid" grand piano with all the modern improvements. Fancy grocers set out an array of Arabian dates, Turkish candy, Jalea de Guayaba (guava jelly), African ground nuts, and Bordeaux prunes in glass jars. Those in need of a special cure could visit Samuel DeVaughan's shop, which was well-stocked with Swedish leeches. Book merchants offered the last installments of Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, published the year before in England, though one American critic, surprisingly, found it "written much more nearly to the life than it should be, to be either gratifying or useful."

* * *

A day that had started sunny and delightfully warm had turned into a much cooler evening. As a light rain began to fall, the Edmonsons crossed over one of the bridges spanning the Washington City Canal that ran along the north side of the National Mall - filled in as today's Constitution Avenue. The darkened U.S. Capitol loomed to their left. To their right, a section of land had been marked for Monday's scheduled excavation to lay the foundation for the Washington Monument.

On the south side of the Mall, Mary, Emily and Samuel passed the ongoing construction site for the Smithsonian Institution, where red Seneca sandstone, hauled down the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal by canal boats from a waterside quarry 20 miles up the Potomac River, was rising in Gothic splendor. Behind and east of the Smithsonian, the notorious slave trader William C. Williams operated Washington's most infamous slave pen, which differed little from the other houses nearby save for the high wall that rimmed its back yard, the fierce bark of his dogs, and the shackles and whips inside. If this escape failed, the Edmonsons knew, they stood a good chance of ending up behind those walls or in a pen like it. They knew too that the slave traders would take them away from their loved ones to sell them in the southern market where huge profits were being made.

The Edmonsons were not running away from Washington because they worked in oppressive conditions. Samuel served the wines and set the table for a gracious and powerful lawyer who sometimes used his courtroom skills to win the freedom of other slaves, and Mary and Emily were respected and liked by the families where they worked. When slaves like the Edmonsons, surrounded by loving family, made the decision to run away, it was almost always because they had learned that their owner was either selling them to a trader like Williams or was on the verge of death, and that too often led to sale and separation. William Culver, one of their owner's nephews, had already sold his future share of the family to his brother two years earlier.

The Edmonsons continued walking toward the river, and houses soon gave way to open fields as they neared the waterfront. That same wharf had once served the needs of a fifteen-hundred-acre estate owned by Notley Young, a prominent Catholic and one of the founders of nearby Georgetown College. An earlier map of his land shows a scattering of buildings along the river that appear to be cabins for some of his two hundred slaves, while a nearby larger structure is marked "overseer." While there were certainly pockets of marshland around the city, much of it, as Young's large plantation attests, was eminently suitable for crops and orchards.

Samuel carefully detoured his sisters to a more secluded and "rather lonely" wharf, where a 54-ton schooner was anchored. There, the Edmonsons joined an increasingly large crowd in a hold with less than six feet of head room. Waiting for them among the other passengers, as expected, were three more Edmonson siblings. Ephraim, the oldest, Richard, married with children, and John, of whom the least is known, had managed to commandeer a few boxes to make Mary and Emily a small sitting area for the arduous journey ahead. It is unknown where Ephraim and John had been employed in the city but Richard has been clearly identified as the coachman for the Robert Walker, a northern-born former senator from Mississippi and the current Secretary of the Treasury.

A few small lanterns softly illuminated the faces of the passengers around them. Along with the Edmonsons, these worried would-be émigrés from slavery, bearing the surnames of Bell, Brent, Calvert, Dodson, Marshall, Pope, Queen, Ricks and Smallwood - names that resonate today in Washington and Maryland's thriving black middle class - knew that, if caught, most would be exchanging servant jobs for that of a field hand or even worse for the more attractive women among them. And they, too, knew that the chances were high that they would be sold anyway. They had watched enough of their neighbors, friends, and family members disappear suddenly to the domestic slave trade. Historian estimate that some 600,000 enslaved African-Americans were sold from the Upper South to the Lower South. Another 400,000 were walked south to clear new lands for their migrating owners. It would be one of the largest forced migrations in American history.

* * *

The schooner had arrived in the city on Thursday, April 13th, leaving two days for both crew and fugitives to prepare for a Saturday evening departure. Their arrival coincided with a series of celebrations to mark the recent restoration of democracy to France. Senator Henry S. Foote, a proud slave owner from Mississippi, delivered one of the most famous speeches of the evening, in which he excitedly proclaimed to the crowd that the events in France held out "to the whole family of man so bright a promise of the universal establishment of civil and religious liberty." He added that "the age of tyrants and of slavery was rapidly drawing to a close." White Washington was delighted by the coming of freedom to white Europeans.

Washington was astir with activity that Thursday night beyond the political demonstrations. For an entrance fee of fifty cents, vocal enthusiasts could attend the first in a series of three concerts by the Hutchinson Family Singers. The anti-slavery Hutchinsons – the Peter, Paul and Mary of their day – appeared before a crowd of fourteen hundred people, and all went well until they began singing "There's a Good Time Coming," which described war and slavery as "the monsters of iniquity." At that point, slaveholders in the audience began to hiss "like so many venomous serpents," but "a cry of 'order' put a stop to such contemptible demonstrations." The singers then won the whole crowd over with a new song, "The Revolution in Europe," and the concert ended to thunderous applause. It was a heady moment for the small number of anti-slavery activists who were in the audience, a few of whom might have been aware that the Pearl had just arrived at the 7th Street wharf, a mile south of the Avenue.

Two days later, as the passengers continued to fill the hold of the Pearl, Daniel Drayton, the 56-year-old ship captain from Philadelphia was away from the vessel making final preparations for the journey. The weathered and lean-faced Drayton had often sailed ships between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., transporting wood, oysters and anything else he could carry and later sell. He had been hired for the job by the Underground Railroad cell in Washington, but with no vessel of his own, he had enlisted the Schooner Pearl, along with its resident Captain, Edward Sayres, for a fee of $100, the equivalent of about $2500 in today's money. Their responsibility would ultimately end at the Frenchtown landing at the top of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, where, Drayton later explained, "according to the arrangement with the friends of the passengers, they were to be met and carried to Philadelphia."

William Chaplin, a fifty-two year-old anti-slavery activist residing in Washington, D.C., who was a correspondent for the abolitionist newspaper, the Albany Patriot, had made the arrangements with Drayton for what began as a plan to transport a "few slave cases." But it had grown into a much bolder plan, one that had Chaplin's radical fingerprints on it. A few weeks before the schooner arrived in Washington, Chaplin wrote to the enormously wealthy New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who was likely the financier of the escape, to say that "there are not les than 75" enslaved Washingtonians who were ready to escape and that he was "expecting the arrival of a vessel from Philadelphia" that could hold fifty or more runaways. If this venture succeeded, they hoped, the escape would ignite anti-slavery passion in the North.

Chaplin worked closely with African-Americans who served as operatives in the Underground Railroad cell in Washington, and had also made sure to connect with the Black churches that were a central a part of that community. A plan that involved nearly 80 fugitives and a 54-ton schooner could not have succeeded without close interracial cooperation. But once the fugitives were on board the schooner, they would have to rely on Drayton and Sayres to transport them safely to freedom.

The journey itself didn't concern Drayton. But the vagaries of the weather, complicated by the logistics of secreting a large number of people who, when missed, would bring the authorities running, made it that much more difficult. Because Sunday was the only day when slaves were left alone to see to family concerns and spiritual needs as they attended church to worship the same God as their owners, Saturday evening logically offered the best chance for them to get some distance from Washington before their absences would be missed. Drayton was stuck in a very narrow time frame over which he had little control.

With all of the passengers on board, they cast off. But the wind had died completely by then and, after drifting a mere half mile, the tide turned against them too and they were forced to drop anchor just to keep from being pulled back up the river. The Pearl remained motionless with slack sails until the sun began to rise and a small breeze finally picked up over the water. They quickly lifted the anchor and slowly made their way south down the Potomac.

As daylight increased, they found themselves in clear view of Alexandria, Virginia, a town about ten miles down the river that had been a part of the District of Columbia until all the Virginia land was retroceded back to that state two years earlier. Fortunately, it was Sunday and the wharves were quiet. The Sabbath – if not the rest of the week - was taken seriously in the Washington area and working, gambling, dancing and drinking ceased for 24 hours.

Had any of those Alexandrian residents, several of whom owned fugitives on the Pearl, been awake and looking out to the river at that moment, they might have idly wondered where the little schooner was heading. They would have been struck dumb to learn that the vessel was carrying nearly 80 slaves fleeing the nation's capital and that some of them were theirs.

Adapted from Chapter One of Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad. Copyright © 2007 by Mary Kay Ricks. Published by William Morrow.

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Mary Kay Ricks