Born on August 21, 1789 in Upper Darby, PA, Thomas Garrett is one of the most prominent figures in the history of the Underground Railroad. He has been called Delaware's greatest humanitarian and is credited with helping more than 2,700 slaves escape to freedom in a forty year career as a Station Master.
A white Quaker, whose family hid runaway slaves in its Delaware County farmhouse when he was a child, Garrett credited an experience he characterized as transcendental with directing his life's work toward aiding in the escapes of slaves. The incident, in which a black servant employed by Garrett's family was kidnapped and nearly forced into slavery, was a watershed event for the young Garrett, who would devote his life to the abolitionist cause. It is thought that his move to Wilmington, Delaware from outside of Philadelphia was a strategic choice.
In 1813, he married Margaret Sharpless who died after the birth of their fifth child in 1828. In 1830, Garrett married Rachel Mendenhall, the daughter of a fellow Quaker abolitionist from Chester County, Pennsylvania (some Mendenhalls changed the second 'e' in the name to an 'i' and subsequent generations returned it to its original spelling). They had one child, Eli, together and remained married for 38 years. While maintaining an inconsistently successful hardware business, Garrett acted as a key Station Master on the eastern line of the Underground Railroad. His activities brought him in contact with Philadelphia Station Master William Still. The correspondence between the two men, preserved and published by Still, provides scholars with an intimate perspective of their struggle and those of countless Agents and Conductors on the Eastern Line of the Underground Railroad.
In 1848, Thomas Garrett and a fellow abolitionist John Hunn were tried and convicted for aiding in the escape of the Hawkins family, who had been slaves in Maryland. Both men were given considerable fines which rendered them nearly bankrupt. In his closing address, Garrett regaled those in the courtroom with a redoubled commitment to help runaway slaves. Eyewitness accounts detail the particular contrition of a slave-holding juror from southern Delaware who rose to shake Garrett's hand and apologize at the close of the impassioned speech.
Following the Civil War, Garrett continued his work for minority groups in America. In 1870, when blacks were given the right to vote by the establishment of the 15th Amendment, Garrett was carried on the shoulders of black supporters through the streets of Wilmington as they hailed him "our Moses." Less than one year later, on January 25, 1871, Thomas Garrett died. His funeral, attended by many of the black residents of the city, featured a procession of Garrett's coffin - borne from shoulder to shoulder up Quaker Hill.
- Wilmington Progressive Quaker
- Assisted at least 2700 slaves to freedom in lifetime
- Active abolitionist for over forty years
- Family hid slaves in Upper Darby farmhouse as a child
- Fined $5400 for "knowingly harboring fugitives" at trial in 1848