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New book explores 1840s exploits of Black emancipator Thomas Smallwood



“So here it is,” Scott Shane said as we walked down to the Anacostia River on a recent morning. “The Eastern Branch.”

Joggers were zipping by, dog walkers, parents pushing strollers. Pleasure boats were neatly berthed across from us at a private mooring spot.

Shane read the name on the sign: “The ‘Freedom Boat Club.’ Amazing, right?”

Amazing because that’s exactly what an incredible yet little-known Washingtonian named Thomas Smallwood offered more than 180 years ago in this very neighborhood: freedom.

Smallwood is the subject of Shane’s new book: “Flee North: A Forgotten Hero and the Fight for Freedom in Slavery’s Borderland.”

Smallwood was born into slavery in 1801 and raised in Bladensburg, Md. Freed by his enslaver by age 30, he established himself as a shoemaker in the Navy Yard neighborhood in Southeast Washington.


“When I like to imagine him, it would be 1842,” said Shane. “He had a wife — a free woman from Virginia — and four kids, with a fifth on the way. He was running his shoemaking business during the day to support his family and by night he was organizing these escapes.”

The escapes were truly audacious. Aided by a White abolitionist named Charles Torrey, Smallwood would organize the travel of up to 18 enslaved African Americans at a time: men, women and children who climbed aboard wagons that then crept north in the middle of the night.

Smallwood had a satirical name for the operation, one he’d overheard an irate (and perplexed) White slave-catcher use. He called it “the under ground rail road.” Shane is convinced Smallwood is responsible for introducing that term.

We know about Smallwood’s exploits because he wrote about them. Using the Charles Dickens-inspired pseudonym “Sam Weller Jr.,” he penned withering newspaper columns designed to troll the enslavers whose “walking property” had “walked off,” as Smallwood put it.

After each escape, Smallwood submitted a detailed recap to an Albany-based abolitionist newspaper. In it, he’d typically quote from the “Runaway Slave” ad the person’s enslaver had placed in a District paper, then pick it apart.

Of one White, enslaving family — Azariah Fuller and his sons — Smallwood wrote: “The great blockheads cannot yet account for the mysterious disappearance of their man! Let me explain it to you, sweet sirs! When you sent him down the avenue on that errand, it is true, you thought you watched him very close; but there were many people in the street at the time, and, though he was in his short sleeves, your eyes might fail to fix on him, just at the particular moment when he slipped into the door of the apothecary’s shop on the corner of 11th street, and out of the other, that opens on the back street!”

And to make sure the enslaver read the column, the newspaper would mail him a copy.


Back in the 21st century, helicopters flew low over the Anacostia.

“The defining characteristic of this neighborhood was the water,” said Shane, 69, a former New York Times national security correspondent who lives in Baltimore.

In the 1840s, the banks would have been crowded with wharves, the nearby Navy Yard bustling with industry. The District was the “borderland” of Shane’s subtitle, a cauldron-like crossroads that was home to Whites, free Blacks and enslaved African Americans. It was home to congressmen who were enslavers and radical abolitionist congressmen; William Williams, a dealer in enslaved people whose notorious Yellow House jail was near the National Mall; and to the surreptitious emancipator Smallwood.

And six miles upriver was the busy port of Bladensburg, where in 1814 British troops — including Black Marines — had come ashore to start their incendiary rampage in the capital.

Smallwood would have been about age 13 at the time. He may have heard that the British offered freedom to any enslaved people who came to their side. Perhaps that’s when he decided Britain offered more hope than America. Smallwood always told the people he helped escape that they shouldn’t stop running until they reached Canada.

When Smallwood finally decided to flee — after some truly dramatic events Shane recounts in his riveting book — it was Toronto in which he settled with his family.

We left the river and walked to Fourth and L streets SE. There’s nothing left here from 1834, the year of the city directory that has the shoemaker living on the east side of Fourth Street SE.


“There ought to be a statue of Smallwood,” Shane said.

One complication: There are no known images of Smallwood.

“I haven’t stopped looking,” said Shane. “He lives until 1883, well into the photography era. He went to some of the ‘Colored Conventions’ they had in the second half of the 19th century. I’m picturing a bunch of guys in top hats, scowling at the camera, hopefully with a guide to who’s who.”

Perhaps one of those men is Thomas Smallwood, who risked his life — with, it must be said, style — to offer freedom.

“If he can’t have a statue, there ought to at least be a plaque.”

Until that day, “Flee North” is a worthy memorial.

Source: Washington Post

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