'Watermen' Helped Slaves Unlock Door to Freedom Two hundred years ago, in 1808, the United States outlawed the importation of slaves. Many know the story of the Underground Railroad, but perhaps fewer know the story of "watermen" — sailors and river workers who aided in the escape. George Washington University Professor James Horton explains.
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'Watermen' Helped Slaves Unlock Door to Freedom

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'Watermen' Helped Slaves Unlock Door to Freedom

'Watermen' Helped Slaves Unlock Door to Freedom

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I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, rare recordings - the world the enslave Americans made in song.

But first, 200 years ago, in 1808, the United States outlaw the importation of slaves. And to commemorate that event, we're starting a series of stories about slavery - stories you may not have heard.

Now we all know how the Underground Railroad helped slave escape to freedom in the north. But one lesser known story is that of the watermen - sailors and river workers who helped slaves escape. In fact, slaves relied on them for information as they made their dangerous journey.

James Oliver Horton is the Benjamin Banneker professor of American Studies and History at the George Washington University. He studied these watermen, and he joins us from his home office in Virginia.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Professor JAMES OLIVER HORTON (Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies in History, George Washington University): Well, thank you. I'm enjoying it.

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

So, the watermen. Who were they?

Prof. HORTON: Well, these were people who worked on all forms of water transportation - that is ocean, river, lake.

MARTIN: And were they black? Were they white? Were they both?

Prof. HORTON: Well, they were both. I mean, there were some watermen who were black, some watermen who are white - the vast majority, of course, were white, but there was some African-Americans who worked in various aspects of the sea trade. Some of them, actually, were slaves working for their master in river transportation or lake transportation and so on. The vast majority of the African-Americans, of course, who worked on the water were free.

MARTIN: How did these watermen - why were these watermen are so important in the lives of people who were still in bondage and those who are free? What did they do? What role did they play?

Prof. HORTON: Well, for a person who is in bondage, one of the most important things is to have as much information as possible. Because if you are going to have any chance at all of escaping, you had to have information - geographical information, all kinds of information about where you were, where freedom could be found, and so on. Now, those who traveled had that kind of information. So from the standpoint of a slave, a person who could tell you which direction freedom was in, which way was north, that information was just invaluable. And that's the kind of information that watermen had, and that's a part of what made them so valuable to these kind of slave underground network and made them threatening to slaveholders and the pro-slavery establishment in the - down South.

MARTIN: Well, I want to get to that in a minute, but I want you tell me some of their stories. Give me some of - tell some of their names, and tell me about some of their exploits.

Prof. HORTON: One of the most interesting ones is a story about Jonathan Walker. Now, Jonathan Walker was a white sea captain who was arrested in Florida for helping seven slaves who were attempting to escape. And he became legendary in large part because as part of his punishment, the authorities branded his hand with the letters SS, and it was supposed to signify slave stealer. Frederick Douglas, another African-American and white abolitionist, later said that the SS really stood for slave savior.

MARTIN: Why would take on these risks, as you've written about the punishment after the fugitive slave law of 1815 was severe? There were severe sanctions for trying to help slaves escape. So why did these white sailors take on those risks?

Prof. HORTON: Well, you know, in many cases, this is a situation in which a human being encounters another human being in trouble. Many of the sailors who helped African-American slaves to escape did so not as part of some formal anti-slavery organization, but just because they ran into people who needed help. And for a sailor, the help that they could provide, for example, was allowing a slave to slip on board a ship without reporting his presence, or providing information to a fugitive who was seeking a particular location or a means to the freedom that they were leaning towards.

MARTIN: You've written about the fact that they were sometimes relationships or friendships, collegiality between black and white sailors on ships that just did not happen on land. Will you tell me about that?

Prof. HORTON: Well, on ship, we're talking close quarters. We're also talking about a situation in which crew members depended upon other crew members, because sailing was a dangerous profession. And under those kinds of circumstances, African-American sailors and white sailors who had been spending long periods of time together on shipboard got to know one another as human beings. Now sometimes that change when the ship came into port, but often those relationships continued, even on land.

MARTIN: You've written about how valuable and how important many of the African-American watermen were to maintaining - what? Information networks among people who were still in slavery, and sometimes their relatives who had escaped to freedom. Talk to me about that.

Prof. HORTON: At the time of the Civil War, 90 percent of African-Americans were held in slavery. But the other 10 percent were often those who were connected to the slaves through family or very strong friendship links. Now, the communication between those who were free and those who were slave was often facilitated by communication carriers.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example, if you would, of just the kind of information that these watermen were able to get to - between family members.

Prof. HORTON: Well, a very interesting story is one of a man who escaped from slavery in the South and came to Cincinnati. He was still, technically, a fugitive slave, but he lived in Cincinnati in relative freedom for a period of time, and decided that he wanted to marry a free woman who was from Ohio. And he had joined a Cincinnati church, an African-American church in Cincinnati. Well, there were people in the church who understood that he still had a wife who was enslaved in the South. They decided that he could not marry this new woman in Ohio until he got permission from his - what they called - his wife in the Deep South, to have that relationship severed. That put him in a very difficult decision, because how does this fugitive living in Ohio get information from his enslaved wife in the Deep South?

Well, one of the things he did was to talk to an African-American sailor who was making frequent trips between New Orleans and Cincinnati. And sure enough, this person was able to get information from his wife, which the church accepted. Now, that of course is not a story that you have lots of examples of, but there are other stories in which slaves who escape are able to maintain communication with friends and relatives still in slavery in the South, even though these escaped slaves have now moved to the North.

There's one interesting story where a woman escaped, was living in Ohio, and was able to continue to give her mother information about her life in freedom, even though this mother was a slave in the Mississippi. At one point, she told her mother through messages delivered by seaman that she was getting married, that she had had a child. And the last information we have is that that child -that is, the mother's grandchild - was about to enroll to Oberlin College, what was then called Oberlin Institute.

MARTIN: Wow. That's remarkable.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

And we're speaking with James Oliver Horton. He is a professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University. And we're talking about the history of the watermen and their role in the fight for freedom.

So you were saying earlier that the slave owners figured out that these watermen could be very effective in transmitting messages, and you have to assume that wasn't something that they were in favor of. So did they try to take steps to keep them from doing this?

Prof. HORTON: Oh yes. From the standpoint of the pro-slavery element in the South, watermen worked particularly dangerous figures. In the 1820s, there was actually law passed in South Carolina which made it acceptable for - legally acceptable, I should say - for black sailors who came into the port of Charleston to be imprisoned for the time that their ship remained in port.

Now, they were released when the ship was about to sail out, because then they were seen as no particular threat to the slave system. But slaveholders were very, very concerned that African-American sailors in port, allowed to associate with slaves in the vicinity, might provide those slaves with incendiary information - or at least incendiary for the standpoint of the slaveholder - with information that would encourage and facilitate slaves either upraising or escape.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you to tell us one more story about an African-American waterman who - with a particularly interesting story. That is Anthony Allen. Tell me about him.

Prof. HORTON: Well, Anthony Allen was a slave in - connected in New York. And he got out of slavery, and he signed on to a ship as a seaman. And the captain of the ship actually helped facilitate his ability to buy his freedom, that the captain loaned him money, and he was then able to negotiate his freedom with his master in Schenectady, New York. Then, eventually, he signed onto a whaling ship, and that whaling ship sailed into port of Honolulu. At this point, Anthony Allen jumped ship and he made friends with the elite, those people called the Ali'i(ph), and gave him land in what is now Waikiki.

Well, Anthony Allen then sets up a hospital, a provisioning station, a boarding house, and also a gambling house which serviced seamen coming into Honolulu. We get this information from a letter that he wrote. He actually wrote a letter and sent it back to the son of his former master in Schenectady, New York. I want to picture Anthony Allen sitting out in Waikiki writing this letter, saying to his former master's son, you know, I am out here in Hawaii, and I want to let you know what I have been doing since I left Schenectady.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HORTON: And in the letter he explained that - and this is a direct quote. He says he married two Hawaiian women, as is the custom, and he became, as I said, quite well-known in Hawaii during this period.

MARTIN: Well, that is a remarkable story.

Prof. HORTON: Yes, it's a remarkable story.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Finally, professor, mention this again. So many of us, we know so few names from history. We know, you know, the names, Harriet Tubman. We know the Frederick Douglases. You know, on the occasion of this 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, what would you like most Americans to know about this time in our history that, perhaps, we don't know?

Prof. HORTON: Well, one of the things that we ought to know is that this whole period is a period in which slaves constantly attempted to resist in a variety of ways. Some of them attempted to resist by running away. Some of them were successful. Others were not. The fight against slavery and the struggle against being enslaved was a continual fight and a continual struggle.

MARTIN: James Oliver Horton is Benjamin Banneker professor of American studies and history at the George Washington University. He joined us from his home office in Western Virginia.

Thank you so for speaking with us.

Prof. HORTON: Well, thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it quite a bit.

MARTIN: And Happy New Year to you.

Prof. HORTON: And the same to you.

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