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Unwavering Empathy


Thomas Garrett and his home in Upper DarbyFamiliarity does not breed contempt; it breeds empathy. People who know Muslims don’t fear Muslims. Support for same-sex marriage is greater among those who know someone gay.

Familiarity also explains the abolitionist career of Thomas Garrett, who returned to his parents’ Upper Darby home one day in 1813 and found the place in an uproar. An African-American employee referred to in some accounts as “Mary” had been seized, thrown into a wagon and taken away by men who insisted that she was a runaway slave.

Accounts of Mary’s household duties are vague. However, Garrett’s parents had 13 children, so they certainly needed a lot of help. Mary was likely someone who washed Thomas Garrett’s clothes, cleaned the house, and cooked and served his meals.

That connection likely explains his outrage. Garrett followed the wagon by its distinctive track, found the woman and her captors in Kensington, and brought Mary home. Then he devoted the rest of his life to liberating as many slaves as possible. A few years later, he moved to Wilmington, where he became one of the most prominent figures in the Underground Railroad. Garrett claimed to have helped more than 2,700 slaves escape over a 40-year career.

“What he promised, he fulfilled,” wrote abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison on the occasion of Garrett’s death. “What he attempted, he seldom or never failed to accomplish; what he believed, he dared to proclaim upon the housetop; what he ardently desired—and incessantly longed for—was the reign of universal peace and righteousness.”

The Garretts were a prolific Quaker family whose founder, a miller named William Garat, had arrived in Pennsylvania from Leicestershire in 1684. By the time Thomas Garrett was born just over a century later, four generations had passed with eight to 10 children each. As a result, Garretts were spread across most of Delaware and Chester counties.

Thomas Garrett Sr., a farmer and manufacturer of edge tools (scythes, axes, knives, chisels, etc.), had inherited the 284-acre Riverview Farm, a remnant of the original 500-acre estate that included William Garat’s 17th-century farmhouse. And it was there that Thomas, the sixth of 11 children born to his father’s second wife, Sarah Price Garrett, was raised. (Demolished in 1969, the site of the farmhouse on Shadeland Avenue is now a playground for the School of the Holy Child Jesus.)

During Garrett’s boyhood, slavery was not yet the sectional flashpoint issue that it would later become. Indeed, the institution seemed to be dying, as many of the Founding Fathers had hoped it would. Stiff competition against American rice, indigo and tobacco growers made slavery steadily less profitable. (Quakers, of course, had been forbidden by their church to own slaves since 1776.)

But in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. The device greatly accelerated the processing of raw cotton, allowing producers to cut prices and expand markets. In 1792, the year before Whitney’s invention, the United States exported a mere 138,328 pounds of cotton. “This put her on the same level as a producer as Guiana,” wrote historian Hugh Thomas. In 1820, cotton exports reached 35 million pounds. Gradually, cotton became the South’s major cash crop.

Greater production required more slaves. In 1790, there were only 500,000 slaves in the United States. Between 1800 and 1810, the number increased by a third; between 1810 and 1820, by another third. Cotton became the most important U.S. export, causing an unprecedented demand for slaves. As that demand accelerated, slave populations in the Upper South actually declined somewhat as workers were traded to the Deep South, where cotton was grown. Female slaves were particularly desired, wrote Thomas, because “it was supposed that the sensitive harvesting of cotton demanded female labor.”

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The Garretts were Quakers, and much is often made of this. But most Quakers did not participate in the Underground Railroad, an illegal activity that Friends as a group would officially condemn as leading to violence.

At the time, the proper outlet for anti-slavery Quakers was the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, founded in 1784. PAS activities were confined mostly to annual petitions to Congress to ban the slave trade and providing legal representation for kidnapped African-Americans who were legally free. PAS’ most prominent members included Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, which may partially explain its conservatism.

In 1786, George Washington bemoaned PAS activities. In a letter, he described the escape of a Virginia neighbor’s slave to Philadelphia where “a society of Quakers in the city, formed for such purposes, have attempted to liberate” him. Reviled by pro-slavery forces as radical and by abolitionists as timid, PAS faded away after the 1833 founding of the more radical American Anti-Slavery Society.

Perhaps PAS’ major accomplishment was its successful 1788 campaign to amend Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual-abolition law. After receiving petitions bearing 2,000 signatures (a large number in that era) the Pennsylvania legislature agreed to prohibit the transportation of slave children or pregnant women out of the state, along with the building, outfitting or sending of slave ships from Philadelphia. The act also imposed heavier fines for slave kidnapping and made it illegal to separate slave families by more than 10 miles.

Garrett joined PAS in 1818, but eventually moved beyond its careful philosophy. He moved to Wilmington in 1822. There, he went into business as an iron, steel, coal and hardware retailer.

“Why Wilmington?” asked Garrett biographer James A. McGowan. “Why not Chester or York or any other city in the free state of Pennsylvania?”

McGowan credited the Upper Darby kidnapping attempt and its profound effect on Garrett’s life as priorities. “With such a life’s purpose revealed to him,” he concluded, “it would simply be a matter of course for a man of Thomas Garrett’s bold character to pack up and, in today’s vernacular, ‘be where the action is.’”

That grit also served his business. According to biographer William Tilden, a competing iron dealer tried to crush Garrett early in his career by reducing his prices to cost. In response, Garrett undercut that price.

Wrote Tilden: “Friend Thomas, nothing daunted, employed a man to take his place in the store, tied on his leather apron, took to his hammer and anvil and, in the prosecution of the trade he had learned from his father, prepared to support his family with his own hands so long as the run lasted.”

That brazen determination came into full form in Garrett’s single-minded battle with slavery. Delaware was a slave state. And by the time a runaway reached Wilmington, he or she did not have far to go to reach free territory. “Pursuit by the enraged slave owner in [border] states was often hot and ruthless,” wrote McGowan, noting that those suspected of harboring runaways not infrequently had their homes burned and were themselves tarred and feathered.

And yet, Garrett worked at his illegal and controversial hobby for decades without harm. (In 1853, he was slightly bruised when three men tried to throw him off a train he’d boarded to save a free black woman. Despite the rough treatment, he retrieved her.) Garrett attributed his luck to age, a Quakerly appearance, and his “cool impudence.”

Garrett never worked alone, but with allies black and white. Allies to the south funneled fugitives to his door; allies to the north received those he sent on; allies across the nation and abroad sent money to help finance it all, though Garrett spent plenty of his own.

In 1857, Garrett wrote to an English supporter, describing how—with the help of her “handsome donation”—he had reunited a family of runaways. The father, he told Mary Edmundson, “a man of noble form,” had left his wife and three daughters in Virginia and traveled more than 300 miles to reach Wilmington in the fall of 1855. There, Garrett sent him on to Massachusetts.

The rest of the family fled separately, spent the winter hiding in a cave, and reached Garrett in the spring of 1856. When the woman despaired of ever seeing her husband again, Garrett asked the man’s name and told his wife where to find him. “I enjoyed their happiness as much as I ever enjoyed a Quaker meeting with the best of preachers,” wrote Garrett.

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Among Garrett’s favorite allies was Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave herself who made repeated trips south to lead others to freedom. Tubman was a frequent visitor at the Garretts’ Shipley Street home, and Garrett wrote glowing accounts of her adventures while also worrying about her safety.

Usually, Tubman asked for money. In 1856, wrote Garrett, “Harriet came into my office and addressed me thus: ‘Mr. Garrett, I am here again, out of money and with no shoes to my feet, and God has sent me to you for what I need.”

Garrett’s worst disaster came in 1848 when he was convicted of helping a fugitive family from Maryland to escape. The judge was Roger B. Taney, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and, in 1857, author of the Dred Scott decision that blacks had “no rights a white man was bound to respect.”

Warned to stop breaking the law, Garrett replied, “Judge, thou has not left me a dollar, but I wish to say to thee, and to all in this courtroom, that if anyone knows a fugitive who wants a shelter and a friend, send him to Thomas Garrett.”

Why the defiance? It all started in 1813, when slave catchers seeking more female cotton-pickers came to Upper Darby.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.

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