A few years ago, I went on a “walking tour” of African-American Georgetown, learning about the historic pre-civil war black community of this now prosperous Washington DC neighborhood, seeing the churches that remain, the houses that still stand, and the parks and public areas. This is when I first heard about the “Pearl”, a ship on which a number of black slaves attempted to leave Washington DC, where slavery existed, for Pennsylvania and places north, going down the Potomac and into Chesapeake Bay, where slavery had been abolished. The attempt failed.
It was a very interesting story, one that I had not heard about before. And, truth be known, one that I heard nothing about it subsequently, so I forgot the story, like so many others. Until I came across a recent book by Mary Kay Ricks called “Escape on the Pearl: the Historic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad”, published about four years ago.
The book tells two parallel stories. First, the attempted escape of 77 slaves on the Pearl, the capture of the ship as it faced weather difficulties before hitting open water, and the fate of slaves (particularly of the two young Edmondson sisters and their large family), as well as the crew members and captain. Second, the story of slavery in the District of Columbia and, to an extent, the nation as a whole.
The District of Columbia permitted slavery since the day it was carved from slave states Virginia and Maryland. This does not mean that slavery was extensive – by the 1840s, there were over three times as many free blacks as slaves in the District. In fact, slavery in the Maryland/Virginia area became less prevalent as the 19th century progressed; the slave-rich tobacco economy had suffered as slavery as a major force moved south to the cotton states. It was far from unusual for the local slave markets to offer mid-Atlantic slaves for sale to traders who brought them south for resale at a high profit.
While there was little pressure to end slavery in the South during the first decades of the 19th century, there were increasing battles over whether slavery would be permitted in newer states and territories. The Missouri compromise of 1820 permitted the entry of Maine as a free state, Missouri as a slave state and stated that no slaves could be admitted to states north of a certain parallel. In the 1830’s, anti-slavery agitation grew throughout the North, and made its entry into the District of Columbia; the underground railway became quite active, the 1848 attempted escape on the Pearl was the most extreme manifestation of its activities.
The Missouri Compromise became history in 1850, when California was admitted as a free state, but other territories conquered through the Mexican War allowed to establish their own policies. The 1850 compromise was accompanied by a vastly strengthened fugitive slave act, which made it much easier to retrieve slaves who had escaped to the North, even if they had lived there as free blacks for decades. This in turn was affirmed by the infamous Dred Scott case in 1857, just a few years before Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 and the first shots of the Civil War at Ft. Sumter in 1861.
In 1862, President Lincoln signed legislation finally freeing the slaves of the District of Columbia, six months before the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation which purported to free the slaves of the South.
Throughout all of this, “Escape on the Pearl” deals with the fate of the participants in the unsuccessful attempt escape. And there fates were difficult ones – most wound up in prison for a while, some longer than others. Some of the slaves were taken back by their masters, but most weren’t and were sold, with families split, etc. And the fate of the Edmondsons is more than a story unto itself – worth reading the book just for their story.