Posted by: beachchairandabook | February 1, 2017

Running to Freedom (To See What the End Will Be)



Image of Sam Hawkins in Custody

I was supposed to be in Sarasota. I looked forward to live music at Marina Jack’s and  Asian food at Yummy. I would miss a walk along Lido Beach and Siesta Key. I wouldn’t get to  buy Cuban coffee and Sangria mix at Columbia Restaurant in St. Armand’s Circle. I wouldn’t  feed my passion for history with a quick run up to Tampa’s Ybor City where  I hoped to visit the site of the Marti-Maceo Cuban Social Club and the  home of Paulina Pedroso. Pedroso was an Afro-Cuban woman prominent in  Cuba’s revolution against Spain. She and her husband Ruperto hosted Jose Marti whenever he came to Tampa..

Instead, a conflicting commitment kept me in Maryland. But there was still sunshine and history to be found in nearby New Castle,  Delaware.It was the landing place of  William Penn in the New World. A border dispute between Penn and Maryland’s Lord Baltimore was was solved  by surveyors Mason and Dixon, resulting in the boundary line that bears their name. When Delaware broke from Pennsylvania, New Castle became the seat of colonial government.

Beyond those founding facts, I discovered a piece of close-to-home history. At 3:45 that Friday afternoon we took the last tour of the day of the colonial era New Castle Courthouse Museum. Composed of three sections, it was constructed  between 1730 and 1845  over the remains of the 1680 courthouse. Until 1881, when Wilmington became the county seat, it was home to the Federal and State courts.  At one time it became the New Castle Tearoom..(Shirley Temple sipped there). In 1848, however, it was the site of a trial of two of the  most storied station masters along the Maryland/Delaware route of the Underground Railroad.  



The tale began with Emeline Hawkins and her husband Sam. Emeline  was an enslaved woman in nearby Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. Sam, a free man, owned his own home near the land where Emeline was enslaved. She and their children were the property of many slave owners in the area but they were all able to live in Sam’s home. Through death and inheritance, the status of the younger children was murky, but the two older boys were proven to be slaves of one of the area’s farmers.

When Sam’s attempt to purchase his wife’s freedom was rejected, the family decided to run. First to aid them on their journey was Samuel Burris, a free black man from Delaware and one of the area’s most dedicated Underground Railroad conductors. This commitment was particularly dangerous for Burris. A black person convicted of aiding escaped slaves would be arrested, fined  and subsequently sold into slavery. Burris took the family to the home of another free black man in  Delaware. There, four enslaved  men joined the group. With the men on foot and Emeline and the children in a wagon driven by Sam, they traveled more than 20 miles through a snowstorm to the home of the Quaker John Hunn in Middletown. About Hunn it was later said “In my day it has been more to John Hunn’s labors and preaching that the Underground Railroad was kept running through Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland than to any other person.”

A nosy neighbor caught sight of the group and reported them to the Constable of Middletown. He came to Hunn’s home, followed shortly by two slave catchers from Queen Anne’s County. Although it was confirmed that Sam was indeed a free man, he was arrested for aiding the escape of slaves. Sam was taken to the Middletown magistrate’s office where he learned the cost of freedom  for him and his family. Turn over his two older enslaved sons and he, Emeline and the younger children could go free. He reluctantly agreed, but it didn’t matter. When Emeline arrived with the children, they were all taken to New Castle.



Replica of Emeline Hawkins, New Castle Courthouse Museum

Meanwhile, Burris and the four men made their way to Wilmington  to the home of heroic station master Thomas Garrett. Soon after, the sheriff of New Castle sent for Garrett. The sheriff, who was said to hold anti-slavery sentiments,released the  Hawkins family into his custody.  After a trial, the Chief Justice of Delaware dismissed the charges. When the Queen Anne’s County slave hunters returned with a legal document, they were too late. By the time the men arrived, the Hawkins family was on their way to freedom in Pennsylvania.

After aiding the four men to escape, Burris returned to Hunn’s Middletown home with a letter from Garrett. It read “My joy on this occasion was great, and I returned thanks to God for this wonderful escape of so many human beings from the charnel house of slavery.” The story of the Hawkins family’s escape didn’t end there. They settled in Pennsylvania where their descendants took  the name of Hackett.

Anyone who’s read my blog knows how much I love history – reading about it, talking about it, visiting the places where it was made.I knew of Burris, Hunn and Garrett, but the Hawkins family was new to me and even closer to home than Harriet Tubman. I encourage anyone interested in ”freedom seekers” to learn more about these people.A short blog post can’t do the justice their story deserves, but I hope it inspires further exploration. If you can, visit the places (near and far) where their heroic actions were literally a bridge our ancestors crossed over.   

By the way, there’s more to the story of the three men who aided Emeline and Sam Hawkins. Part of it took place in the New Castle Courthouse in a trial presided over by the infamous Roger Taney. Yes, that Roger Taney – the Maryland judge of  the Dred Scott decision who stated “that the Negro had no rights the white man was bound to respect.” Look for my next post to “see what the end will be.”




  1. This is great

    Sent from my iPad


    • Thanks! I’m taking another Underground Railroad trip to Pennsylvania this weekend.

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