Failed Escape Sheds New Light on D.C. Slavery After a failed 1848 escape of slaves in Washington, D.C., divisions deepened between influential slave-owners and abolitionists. The nation's capital was swept up in controversy that would soon change the course of history.

Failed Escape Sheds New Light on D.C. Slavery

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Washington, D.C., has always figured itself as the place of debate and discourse. Controversy is aired here, discussed, and, on good days, resolved. But just before the Civil War, the nation's capital was part of the debate.

It was near this spot on the Washington waterfront that a plan to smuggle many of the city's slaves down the Potomac to freedom almost worked. In the aftermath, divisions deepened between influential slave owners and abolitionists, and the city was swept up in controversy that would soon change the course of history.

Joining me here on the waterfront in southwest Washington is Mary Kay Ricks. She's author of "Escape on the Pearl." Good morning.

Ms. MARY KAY RICKS (Author, "Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad"): Good morning.

ROBERTS: So I should mention we're on a barge in the middle of the Washington Canal here. Describe how this is different than it was in 1848. What would we have seen when the Pearl was docked here?

Ms. RICKS: Well, when the Pearl came in, this was a working wharf. They brought in wood; they brought in food. There was no channel here at the time.


(Soundbite of barge honking)

ROBERTS: We were briefly interrupted by a boat going out with the Living Classrooms Foundation, a group of school kids learning about the river. But we were talking a little about how this river has changed in the last 150 years.

Ms. RICKS: Well, it was also, of course, a very important place for the oysters to be shipped to other places. But then, in 1848, it became the site of a very different transportation, and that's when nearly 80 fugitives, enslaved African-Americans, made their ways in twos and threes from Georgetown, even some from Alexandria, across the mall to a small, little secluded wharf. And they boarded a schooner named the Pearl waiting for them.

ROBERTS: And most of these slaves were not who we traditionally think of as fugitives. They weren't field hands escaping plantations in the South. They were house servants for the most part.

Ms. RICKS: That's right. Many of them were hired out in the best homes and the best hotels in Washington, but they were subject to being sold at any time. And slaves in the upper South were very valuable. They were wanted for the cotton plantations and the sugar plantations. Every family was affected.

ROBERTS: So why take 75, 80 slaves out at a time in a somewhat visible, almost a stunt, rather than sneaking them out on a much lower profile?

Ms. RICKS: Which is what was usually done. I think it had to do with the frustration of the abolitionists. We had an Underground Railroad cell in Washington, D.C. and I think it was a political maneuver 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 brightly on it.

ROBERTS: Ultimately, the attempt failed, the Pearl had to sort of hover in the river while some bad weather passed and a steamboat that had been sent caught them rather easily. Do you think the fact that they failed still accomplished the sort of publicity stunt aspect of it?

Ms. RICKS: You know, it accomplished a fiercer debate in Congress. They all knew slavery was legal here, 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.

And one of the slave traders put nearly 50 fugitives in a railway car in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. The railroad depot was literally on the edge of the Capitol grounds. And their family and loved ones came to say goodbye to them, and it went to the newspapers throughout the North, and this actually created a move to end at least the slave trade in Washington.

ROBERTS: Another thing that was helped by the abolitionist forces who were using the Pearl as an example was the compelling nature of the Edmonsons, the six siblings who were part of the Pearl escape. Their parents were free landowners, their older siblings, some of them were free, and the two youngest daughters turned out to be extraordinary spokespeople.

Ms. RICKS: Yes. They were 13 and 15 years old, Mary and Emily Edmonson. And their family, again working closely with the Underground Railroad, began a campaign to purchase them. They went to New York and they held a rally. And in Manhattan, in the Broadway Tabernacle, they raised enough money to free the girls.

Then they became involved with Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had just written this book "Uncle Tom's Cabin." She wrote their story and this woke up a number of people and I think won some converts for the anti-slavery cause.

ROBERTS: And what became of the Edmonsons?

Ms. RICKS: Well, the Edmonsons went on to Oberlin College. And, unfortunately, Mary died of tuberculosis. After Mary Edmonson died, her sister returned to Washington and she worked for Myrtilla Miner, a woman who would come from the North to set up the school to train young African women to be teachers. And so many of the people who were on the ship that night in April of 1848 were the beginnings of the black middle class. I know their descendants in Washington, in Maryland. They're teachers, they're doctors; it's a truly remarkable family.

ROBERTS: And as an Washingtonian, how did you come to feel about the city after reporting the story? I mean, in some ways, it seems so long ago, because the city is so different now as we can hear with the airplanes and helicopters going overhead. But, in some ways, the sights that you talked about in the book are right here. We pass them everyday.

Ms. RICKS: I find the city far more exciting. It makes slavery more understandable. It makes life today more understandable. And slavery has often been a subject that's difficult to teach, and I think that's because people don't know enough about it. I think it's just an amazing story and that it had been lost. Such a story had been lost, speaks to those years of segregation. It speaks to the time when we didn't include everyone's history, and now we're giving it full credit. And it's such a rich history.

ROBERTS: Mary Kay Ricks is author of "Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad." Thanks so much.

Ms. RICKS: Thank you for having me.

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ROBERTS: You can read an excerpt from Mary Kay Ricks' book and learn about the Edmonson descendants at

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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