On April 15, 1848, abolitionists executed a plan to free over 70 people enslaved by families in Washington, D.C. The freedom seekers were to travel aboard The Pearl, sail down the Potomac River and up Chesapeake Bay, landing in the free state of New Jersey. Forced by weather conditions to anchor overnight, the ship and people were caught by agents of “owners.” The recaptured freedom seekers were then sold to slave marketers in the Deep South, setting a fearful example for others in D.C.
Mary and Emily Edmonson, sisters aged about 15 and 13, two of 14 children of a free father and enslaved mother, were sold to slave agents in New Orleans. After about six months awaiting a possible fate of sale into sexual slavery, they were freed by funds raised by their father, Paul Edmonson, with help from northern churches and abolitionist agent, William Chaplin. They moved immediately to the Farmington-Macedon community in central New York. There, they lived with Quakers William R. Smith and Eliza Smith (homesite pictured below). Nearby, Cassandra Green Hamblin, Hannah C. Smith, Phebe Hathaway, Maria E. Wilbur, and Anna P. Adams set up a Quaker school, locally known as the “Bird’s Nest School,” (picture below) attended by Mary and Emily. Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose famed novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was inspired by the Pearlincident, helped support their education.
The Smith Homestead
The “Bird’s Nest School”
The Edmonson sisters’ ordeal was a national news story, and for a time they were what we call today activists and advocates, telling their story and even acting it out dramatically for audiences to help convince others to support abolition in the United States. Their fame and activities in this vein put them in company with abolitionist leaders, including participation at the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law Convention in nearby Cazenovia, NY.
William R. Smith and other Farmington-Macedon Quakers continued to organize and cooperate with local and regional abolitionist and Underground Railroad networks. They provided material and logistical support for escaping freedom seekers, securing funds for purchasing freedom and for legal expenses, including bail. Quaker values and training fostered a sense of mission, purpose, and obligation to continuous work to abolish slavery.
These brief facts raise countless sober questions, such as these:
What must these experiences have been like for these two girls? For their tenuously empowered parents and siblings?
What social, familial, and personal qualities helped all involved to maintain the necessary courage, determined effort, and willingness to sacrifice?
What happened to those whose stories did not make the newspapers? Whose families, friends, communities, and connections could not rescue them?
Learn more through these books and online resources:
Mary Kay Rix, Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad (2008).
Stanley Harrold, Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1818-1865 (2003).
Josephine Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac (2010).
Judith Wellman and Marjory Perez, with Charles Lenhart and others, Uncovering the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life in Wayne County, 1820-1880 (Lyons: Wayne County Historian’s Office, 2008), https://web.co.wayne.ny.us/index.php/office-of-the-county-historian/uncovering-the-underground-railroad-abolitionism-and-african-american-life-in-wayne-county-new-york-1820-1880/.
Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998).
Here are some interesting current links for African American History learning this month: