The Story

A Gateway to Freedom.

In the early half of the 19th Century, tens of thousands of African American slaves escaped from the South to freedom in the northern United States and Canada.

Their daring escapes were made possible by a clandestine network of people, hideouts, and willing ship captains that history would eventually call The Underground Railroad.

This “railroad” didn’t operate with tracks and trains, of course. It ran on water. And secrets.

It represented America’s first non-violent resistance initiative, and some speculate that more enslaved African Americans departed the port cities of Virginia than any other area along the eastern seaboard.

How many? Hundreds at least. Perhaps thousands.

No one can ever be sure.

We do know this: With 1,500 ships visiting Norfolk’s waterfront each year, Virginia was the perfect gateway for slaves seeking freedom in the north.

 

Easy access.

None of this was lost on Virginia’s authorities.

In fact, they were so concerned that slaves were escaping in large numbers that they passed countless ordinances from 1820 through the eve of the Civil War. The laws allowed for the search and seizures of vessels entering Virginia’s waterways. Especially those from the North.

Yet the practice of using slaves to do much of the work in port areas also afforded black men and women easy access to the numerous ferries, sloops and other ships that occupied the waterways throughout Hampton Roads. 

Black men held the preponderance of maritime positions along the Chesapeake Bay and its numerous tributaries that drove the slave trade from the Carolinas to New England.  In Hampton Roads, African Americans crowded the shipyards, wharves, and docks as part of the throng of laborers.  Visitors to the area would have seen canal boats, scows, flatboats, and skiffs commanded by all-black crews.

 

Secrecy, strategy and concealment

The “agents” and “conductors” on Virginia’s Underground Railroad were the most threatening group to slaveholders. Without their brave and heroic deeds, far fewer slaves would have been able to find freedom, or even see it as an option.

The conductors were often skilled slaves, free blacks or whites.  Many of their names will forever remain anonymous because the success of their enterprise and their safety demanded the utmost secrecy.

Many remain anonymous. But not all.

Henry Lewey was a Norfolk slave who used the pseudonym “Bluebeard” to hide his identity. He escaped in 1856 when word circulated that he was a suspected Underground Railroad agent. 

William Bagnall was a white Virginia Bank bookkeeper who was later credited with assisting in the escapes of numerous slaves and passing correspondence between those who had escaped and enslaved family members still living in Hampton Roads.

Indeed, the duty of an Underground Railroad agent was not limited to connecting slaves seeking freedom with sympathetic ship captains and underground agents in the north.

After the escapees reached the North, the local agent often served as the only connection to loved ones left behind.

 

Telling secrets

It wasn’t until years later that the heroic stories of the Underground Railroad began to be heard and told.

It was William Still, secretary and executive director of the antebellum Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, who collected thousands of stories from fugitive slaves through interviews and letters from 1852 until emancipation. 

And it was William Still who gave the clandestine network its name.

He published his collection in 1872 in a work called The Underground Railroad

The accounts in Still’s book illustrate Norfolk’s reputation as one of the most active ports on the Underground Railroad.  In fact, two of the most famous cases involving Underground Railroad fugitives involved escapees from Norfolk – George Latimer and Shadrach Minkins.

 

Secret passage

Of the roughly 90 former local slaves interviewed or referenced by William Still in The Underground Railroad, the majority reported escaping by ship from the Norfolk waterfront. 

Since the 1830s, in fact, local newspapers had been announcing that the “villains” responsible for carting fugitives northward were ship captains whose vessels regularly navigated the waterways of Hampton Roads.

To be sure, certain ship captains were known in the underground community to be sympathetic to runaways, or at least willing to do it for a price. 

Although some runaway slaves were secreted aboard vessels without the knowledge of captains and crews, most received assistance, either from captains or stewards. 

Still’s book listed the City of Richmond, the Pennsylvania, and the Augusta steamships, as well as the Keziah schooner, as vessels that plied the local waterways transporting runaways to points north.

Many credited schooner captains William D. Bayliss, Alfred Fountain and Henry Lee, along with steward John Minkins who worked aboard the City of Richmond and the Pennsylvania.

Between 1851 and 1867, there were 40 wharves operating in the Norfolk-Portsmouth area.

Perhaps none were more significant than Higgins’ and Wright’s wharves, where the City of Richmond, the Philadelphia, and the Augusta were known to have customarily tied up.

 

Isolated. Remote. Perfect.

The City of Richmond with Captain Mitchell and the Pennsylvania with Captain Teal were Union Pacific Steamship Company vessels that left from Higgins Wharf every Tuesday and Thursday at noon throughout the 1850s. The Augusta, captained by William C. Smith, left every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 6:30 a.m. from Wright’s Wharf in Norfolk. 

Relatively isolated and located at the far end of Widewater Street near New Castle Street, the two wharves sat near the site of today’s Harbor Park baseball field.

At the time, it was a remote area of Norfolk’s waterfront near a footbridge that led to the black neighborhoods in and around the Town of Berkley. The wharves allowed fugitive slaves some degree of anonymity and protection as they sought passage aboard one of the many schooners and steamships docked in port.

Indeed, opportunities to depart aboard vessels were ample for daring or desperate enslaved African Americans in Hampton Roads, especially before the state-initiated mandatory ship inspections and the municipal paid night watchmen. 

Moreover, fugitives may have been assisted in their escape by the Norfolk and Western Railroad whose track ran down Widewater Street past every major wharf along the waterfront in downtown Norfolk, or by the all-black crew operating the ferries that ran between Norfolk and Portsmouth.

 

Trust. Suspicion. And freedom.

Whites certainly played an invaluable role in the movement. Many white sailors, ship captains, and other travelers provided slaves with opportunities to escape.

However, it was the members of the black community who were most deeply involved. While individual slaves made the courageous decision to escape, he or she usually turned to fellow blacks for aid.

When slaves escaped, their black acquaintances and relatives were immediately suspected of helping, as were black sailors.

The slaves who ran away were young, healthy and ambitious, and most ranged in age from the late teens to the mid-thirties. About 25 percent were females. It was not unusual for the escapees to be skilled in a trade and represented their masters’ most valuable slave property. A healthy male in that age range was worth about $1,500 in the late 1850s if he possessed a skill, and good female slaves commonly sold for $1,200.

Some slaves contemplated the idea of escaping to freedom for months, or even years before leaving.

Using Virginia’s waterways, they found freedom and a better life.

How many?

No one can ever be sure.

A Gateway to Freedom.

In the early half of the 19th Century, tens of thousands of African American slaves escaped from the South to freedom in the northern United States and Canada.

Their daring escapes were made possible by a clandestine network of people, hideouts, and willing ship captains that history would eventually call The Underground Railroad.

This “railroad” didn’t operate with tracks and trains, of course. It ran on water. And secrets.

It represented America’s first non-violent resistance initiative, and some speculate that more enslaved African Americans departed the port cities of Virginia than any other area along the eastern seaboard.

How many? Hundreds at least. Perhaps thousands.

No one can ever be sure.

We do know this: With 1,500 ships visiting Norfolk’s waterfront each year, Virginia was the perfect gateway for slaves seeking freedom in the north.

 

Easy access.

None of this was lost on Virginia’s authorities.

In fact, they were so concerned that slaves were escaping in large numbers that they passed countless ordinances from 1820 through the eve of the Civil War. The laws allowed for the search and seizures of vessels entering Virginia’s waterways. Especially those from the North.

Yet the practice of using slaves to do much of the work in port areas also afforded black men and women easy access to the numerous ferries, sloops, and other ships that occupied the waterways throughout Hampton Roads. 

Black men held the preponderance of maritime positions along the Chesapeake Bay and its numerous tributaries that drove the slave trade from the Carolinas to New England.  In Hampton Roads, African Americans crowded the shipyards, wharves, and docks as part of the throng of laborers.  Visitors to the area would have seen canal boats, scows, flatboats, and skiffs commanded by all-black crews.

 

Secrecy, strategy and concealment

The “agents” and “conductors” on Virginia’s Underground Railroad were the most threatening group to slaveholders. Without their brave and heroic deeds, far fewer slaves would have been able to find freedom, or even see it as an option.

The conductors were often skilled slaves, free blacks or whites.  Many of their names will forever remain anonymous because the success of their enterprise and their safety demanded the utmost secrecy.

Many remain anonymous. But not all.

Henry Lewey was a Norfolk slave who used the pseudonym “Bluebeard” to hide his identity. He escaped 1856 when word circulated that he was a suspected Underground Railroad agent. 

William Bagnall.  was a white Virginia Bank bookkeeper who was later credited with assisting in the escapes of numerous slaves and passing correspondence between those who had escaped and enslaved family members still living in Hampton Roads.

Indeed, the duty of an Underground Railroad agent was not limited to connecting slaves seeking freedom with sympathetic ship captains and underground agents in the north.

After the escapees reached the North, the local agent often served as the only connection to loved ones left behind.

 

Telling secrets

It wasn’t until years later that the heroic stories of the Underground Railroad began to be heard and told.

It was William Still, secretary and executive director of the antebellum Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, who collected thousands of stories from fugitive slaves through interviews and letters from 1852 until emancipation. 

And it was William Still who gave the clandestine network its name.

He published his collection in 1872 in a work called The Underground Railroad

The accounts in Still’s book illustrate Norfolk’s reputation as one of the most active ports on the Underground Railroad.  In fact, two of the most famous cases involving Underground Railroad fugitives involved escapees from Norfolk – George Latimer and Shadrach Minkins.

(NOTE: Can we refer to their stories on the map somehow so I don’t have to repeat them here?)

 

Secret passage

Of the roughly 90 former local slaves interviewed or referenced by William Still in The Underground Railroad, the majority reported escaping by ship from the Norfolk waterfront. 

Since the 1830s, in fact, local newspapers had been announcing that the “villains” responsible for carting fugitives northward were ship captains whose vessels regularly navigated the waterways of Hampton Roads.

To be sure, certain ship captains were known in the underground community to be sympathetic to runaways, or at least willing to do it for a price. 

Although some runaway slaves were secreted aboard vessels without the knowledge of captains and crews, most received assistance, either from captains or stewards. 

Still’s book listed the City of Richmond, the Pennsylvania, and the Augusta steamships, as well as the Keziah schooner, as vessels that plied the local waterways transporting runaways to points north.

Many credited schooner captains William D. Bayliss, Alfred Fountain, and Henry Lee, along with steward John Minkins who worked aboard the City of Richmond and the Pennsylvania.

Between 1851 and 1867, there were 40 wharves operating in the Norfolk-Portsmouth area.

Perhaps none were more significant than Higgins’ and Wright’s wharves, where The City of Richmond, the Philadelphia, and the Augusta were known to have customarily tied up.

 

Isolated. Remote. Perfect.

The City of Richmond with Captain Mitchell and the Pennsylvania with Captain Teal were Union Pacific Steamship Company vessels that left from Higgins’ Wharf every Tuesday and Thursday at noon throughout the 1850s. The Augusta, captained by William C. Smith, left every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 6:30 a.m. from Wright’s Wharf in Norfolk. 

Relatively isolated and located at the far end of Widewater Street near New Castle Street, the two wharves sat near the site of today’s Harbor Park baseball field.

At the time, it was a remote area of Norfolk’s waterfront near a footbridge that led to the black neighborhoods in and around the Town of Berkley. The wharves allowed fugitive slaves some degree of anonymity and protection as they sought passage aboard one of the many schooners and steamships docked in port.

Indeed, opportunities to depart aboard vessels were ample for daring or desperate enslaved African Americans in Hampton Roads, especially before the state-initiated mandatory ship inspections and the municipal paid night watchmen. 

Moreover, fugitives may have been assisted in their escape by the Norfolk and Western Railroad whose track ran down Widewater Street past every major wharf along the waterfront in downtown Norfolk, or by the all-black crew operating the ferries that ran between Norfolk and Portsmouth.

 

Trust. Suspicion. And freedom.

Whites certainly played an invaluable role in the movement. Many white sailors, ship captains, and other travelers provided slaves with opportunities to escape.

However, it was the members of the black community who were most deeply involved. While individual slaves made the courageous decision to escape, he or she usually turned to fellow blacks for aid.

When slaves escaped, their black acquaintances and relatives were immediately suspected of helping, as were black sailors.

The slaves who ran away were young, healthy, and ambitious, and most ranged in age from the late teens to the mid-thirties. About 25 percent were females. It was not unusual for the escapees to be skilled in a trade and represented their masters’ most valuable slave property. A healthy male in that age range was worth about $1,500 in the late 1850s if he possessed a skill, and good female slaves commonly sold for $1,200.

Some slaves contemplated the idea of escaping to freedom for months, or even years before leaving.

Using Virginia’s waterways, they found freedom and a better life.

How many?

No one can ever be sure.