Readable re-creation of a little-known episode in the long struggle to abolish slavery in America.
The residents of Washington, D.C., may have been torn on the issue of slavery, but in 1848, the “curious institution” was still practiced there; moreover, former Labor Department attorney Ricks writes, the Upper South—the District, Virginia and Maryland—was increasingly important as a source of slaves for the Deep South, in what Ricks calls “the internal slave trade.” Punishment for those who aided runaway slaves was severe, and it was thus quite daring of the abolitionists and slaves alike to undertake an attempted mass escape on the schooner Pearl. On April 15, 1848, about 70 slaves, including a tight-knit group of siblings, gathered in twos and threes on a dock not far from a slave pen just south of the National Mall—a prison that, Ricks notes, was promoted as “next to the copy of the Declaration of Independence also preserved here, the greatest curiosity to be seen at the Federal City.” The schooner slipped away and was well on course for the North and freedom, but then it hit one of the Chesapeake Bay’s frequent tempests; a pursuing posse of Georgetown deputies caught up with the Pearl, returned its cargo to slavery and jailed the would-be liberators, who, as Ricks notes, represented a widespread and varied group of interests throughout America, from country preachers to Wall Street magnates. Fittingly, since she now operates a historic-tours firm in Washington, Ricks has a keen eye for sites of the slaves’ voyage that can be visited today. She has an equally strong sense, well reflected in her pages, of how the now largely forgotten incident figured into the fierce pro- and antislavery battles of the time, which would soon end in civil war.
A valuable account, closing with a moving précis of the fate of the Pearl’s people and their descendants.