Watch CBSN Live

Delaware governor pardons abolitionist who helped slaves escape

DELAWARE -- Delaware Governor Jack Markell issued a pardon on Monday for a free black man from Kent County who was convicted in 1847 of helping enslaved people escape their owners.

Samuel D. Burris was born into freedom in or around 1813 in the Willow Grove section of Delaware, reports CBS Radio affiliate KYW's Cherri Gregg.

Burris was the son of George Burris, a free black man. He was well-educated, and became well known for his acts of defiance. He was a conductor on the Underground Railroad where he helped numerous people escape slavery from Maryland and Delaware.

"Now, 168 years after he sat in jail for fighting against slavery, we in Delaware are correcting that injustice," Gov. 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.

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.

Robert Seeley of Haverford began the letter-writing crusade to pardon Burris in January 2015. Seeley is a descendant of abolitionist Thomas Garrett who is said to have helped 2,700 enslaved people escape to freedom, including Harriet Tubman, reports KYW.

"I am thrilled that we are honoring a hero who risked his life to help others to freedom," said Seeley.

Seeley said Garrett worked alongside Burris and farm-owner John Hunn to smuggle escaped slaves to freedom. Burris was convicted under Delaware law on Nov. 2, 1847. He was sent to a Dover jail and was sold into slavery where he was bought for $500 by a white abolitionist posing as a slave owner.

KYW reports that eventually, Burris left Delaware, but continued to help the abolitionist cause. On Monday, roughly 160 years after his death, Burris' actions were repaid by having his name cleared.

"He was free, he was well-educated," said Seeley to KYW. "He didn't have to participate in breaking the law of the land. He knew the consequences like many of the radical abolitionists of that time, but he still did it."

Seeley said the next step is to push for federal pardons for Garrett and Hunn as well.