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Failed Escape Sheds New Light on D.C. Slavery

May 9, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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Washington, D.C., has always figured itself as the place of debate and discourse. But just before the Civil War, the nation's capital was itself part of the debate over slavery.

A plan to smuggle many of the city's slaves down the Potomac River to freedom almost worked. Afterward, divisions deepened between the influential slave-owners and abolitionists. The city was swept up in controversy that would soon change the course of history.

Mary Kay Ricks chronicles the attempted escape and the aftermath in her new book Escape on the Pearl.

In 1848, helped by a local cell of the Underground Railroad, nearly 80 fugitive slaves — many of whom worked in the best homes and hotels in Washington — made their way in twos and threes from Georgetown and some from Alexandria, Va., across the National Mall to a small, secluded wharf. There they boarded a schooner named the Pearl.

Ricks says the escape plan was a political maneuver by the frustrated abolitionists "to take nearly 80 people and get them out of Washington and arrive in the North and say, 'We have escaped from the nation's capital.' They wanted to shine a light more broadly on it."

The plan failed. Bad weather stalled the Pearl and a steamboat sent after the escapees found them easily. But the incident "accomplished a fiercer debate in Congress," Ricks says.

"They all knew slavery was legal (in Washington), but here was an incident that was drawing national attention and international attention. Most of the captured fugitives were sold to slave traders. That was the tradition.

"One of the slave traders put nearly 50 fugitives in a railway car in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol ... and their family and loved ones came to say goodbye to them. It went to the newspapers throughout the North. This actually created a move to end at least the slave trade in Washington," Ricks says.

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