Delaware governor pardons black abolitionist
African Americans who sought to escape slavery were called mentally ill
by Frederick H. Lowe
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell on Monday pardoned black abolitionist Samuel D. Burris, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, 168 years to the day he was convicted and sentenced to prison and to servitude for helping black men and women escape slavery, an activity that was considered both illegal and a form of mental illness by white physicians.
The ceremony, which included unveiling a historical marker, honoring Burris, a free black man from the Willow Grove area of Kent County, Delaware, took place in the Old State House, where Burris was convicted on Nov. 2, 1847, according to the website Blogging Delaware History.
“This pardon is an extraordinary act in recognition of a historic wrong that cannot be corrected by a single stroke of a pen,” Markell said. “But while we cannot change what was done more than 150 years ago, we can ensure that Mr. Burris’ legacy is appropriately recognized and celebrated.We affirm today that history will no longer record his actions as criminal, but rather acts of freedom and bravery in the face of injustice.”
Burris, who lived in Philadelphia, was arrested in 1847 while helping Maria Matthews, a slave escaping from Delaware Hundred, a plantation near Dover, the state capital, according to BlackPast.org, a website at the University of Washington in Seattle. Burris was helping Matthews to escape to Philadelphia. He had successfully helped others to escape but the exact number is not known.
He was imprisoned and forced to wait 14 months before going to trial. A pro-slavery jury found him guilty. During his time in prison, he wrote a letter railing against government officials who allowed slave traders to operate in Delaware.
The Liberator, an anti-slavery newspaper, published his letter in its June 1848 edition.
Black men and black women who either escaped or attempted to escape slavery were considered mentally ill by physicians of the day, according to the book The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became A Black Disease, by Jonathan M. Metzl, associate professor of psychiatry and women’s studies and director of the Culture, Health and Medicine Program at the University of Michigan.
Slaves who escaped bondage were deemed crazy or mad by plantation owners and physicians, Metzl wrote. “It was well-known, of course, that race and insanity share a long and troubled past,” he wrote. “In the 1850s, American psychiatrists believed that African-American slaves who ran away from their white masters did so because of a mental illness called draptetomania. Draptetomania is now considered the edifice of scientific racism. Medical journals of the era also described a condition called dysaesthesia aethiopis, a form of madness manifested by ‘rascality’ and ‘disrespect for the master’s property’ that was believed to be ‘cured’ by brutal whippings. Even at the turn of the twentieth century, leading academic psychiatrists shamefully claimed that Negroes were psychologically unfit for freedom.”
Although white psychiatrists argued black men and black women who escaped slavery or attempted to escape slavery were mad, not everyone agreed.
The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society collected enough money to purchase Burris’ freedom.
Isaac Flint attended the state auction where Burris was to be sold into bondage. Flint was so convincing in his role as a slave trader he and Burris returned to Philadelphia, where Burris’ wife and children lived. Burris knew nothing about the plan.
Later, Burris moved to San Francisco, where he continued to work for the abolitionist cause. He died at 60 in 1869 in San Francisco.