February–March 1866 The Civil War

The Freedman’s Story

An escaped slave recalls his violent showdown with slave-catchers.

A reward poster from Monroe County, Missouri, dating from the 1850s. With the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, even residents of free states and territories were obligated to return escaped slaves to Southern slaveholders. (Kean Collection/Getty Images)


Even fervent abolitionists often spoke patronizingly of slaves—portraying them as the hapless beneficiaries of white assistance. But black Americans like William Parker had long been taking bold and effective action on their own. Born into slavery in Maryland, Parker escaped to the free state of Pennsylvania in 1842. He joined forces with fellow freedmen to fend off the slave-catchers who regularly ventured into Pennsylvania.

In September of 1851, a year after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (which made harboring runaway slaves a serious crime), a Maryland slaveholder named Edward Gorsuch came north in search of his four escaped slaves. A showdown ensued when Gorsuch’s posse knocked at Parker’s door in the town of Christiana. The “Christiana Riot” garnered nationwide attention—as both a challenge to the legitimacy of the Fugitive Slave Act, and a harbinger of conflict to come.

In 1866, Parker wrote about his life for an Atlantic article; in this excerpt, he recalled the infamous events in Christiana.

—Sage Stossel

A number of us had formed an organization for mutual protection against slaveholders and kidnappers, and had resolved to prevent any of our brethren being taken back into slavery, at the risk of our own lives … Kidnapping was so common … that we were kept in constant fear. We would hear of slaveholders or kidnappers every two or three weeks; sometimes a party of white men would break into a house and take a man away, no one knew where; and, again, a whole family would be carried off. There was no power to protect them, nor prevent it. So completely roused were my feelings, that I vowed to let no slaveholder take back a fugitive, if I could but get my eye on him …

I was not at this time aware that in the city of Philadelphia there was a band of devoted, determined men,—few in number, but strong in purpose,—who were fully resolved to leave no means untried to thwart [slave-catchers] … This little band of true patriots in Philadelphia united for the purpose of standing between the pursuer and the pursued, the kidnapper and his victim, and, regardless of all personal considerations, were ever on the alert, ready to sound the alarm to save their fellows from a fate far more to be dreaded than death. In this they had frequently succeeded, and many times had turned the hunter home bootless of his prey …

Thus matters stood in Philadelphia on the 9th of September, 1851, when Mr. Gorsuch and his gang of Maryland kidnappers arrived there. Their presence was soon known to the little band of true men who were called “The Special Secret Committee.” They had agents faithful and true as steel; and through these agents the whereabouts and business of Gorsuch and his minions were soon discovered …

The trusty agent of this Special Committee, Mr. Samuel Williams, of Philadelphia,—a man true and faithful to his race, and courageous in the highest degree,—came to Christiana travelling most of the way in company with the very men whom Gorsuch had employed to drag into slavery four as good men as ever trod the earth. These Philadelphia roughs, with their Maryland associates, little dreamed that the man who sat by their side carried with him their inglorious defeat …

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