DOVER, Del. (AP) — Exactly 168 years after he was convicted, a black man who lost his own freedom to help others escape slavery was posthumously pardoned Monday by Delaware’s governor.
Samuel D. Burris, a free black man, was found guilty in 1847 of helping slaves in central Delaware escape on the Underground Railroad. As his punishment, Burris was sentenced to 10 months in prison and to be sold into servitude himself for 14 years. He was saved from slavery by abolitionists who purchased him for $500 in gold and rushed him to Philadelphia to be reunited with his wife and children.
“Now, 168 years after he sat in jail for fighting against slavery, we in Delaware are correcting that injustice,” Gov. Jack Markell said to the applause of a standing-room only crowd at the Old State House in Dover, where Burris was tried. “I pardon Samuel Burris for the crimes that he was convicted of.”
Several of Burris’s descendants were on hand for the ceremony, including Ocea Thomas, of Atlanta, and Pastor Ralph D. Smith, of Dover.
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Thomas said she hoped that Monday’s ceremony might lead to similar pardons for other 19th-century abolitionists.
“I think it is supporting the fact that actually what he did wasn’t really wrong. … Maybe it will be something that will spread to other states,” she said.
Smith said Burris put himself and his family in danger in order to help others.
“It did not stop him from doing what he thought was right,” Smith said in his invocation as shouts of “Amen!” filled the room.
Markell called Burris a hero for risking his own liberty in the fight to eradicate slavery.
“His sentence was harsh,” Markell noted. “Prior to that sentence, he was a free man. But he was not content simply to secure his own freedom. He risked his life to ensure that others would be free as well.”
In addition to the pardon, Burris is being honored with a new roadside historical marker that was erected near his home in central Delaware.