Abolitionist Thomas Garrett: a snapshot biography

Thomas Garrett
Thomas Garrett

“Judge thou has left me not 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 and he will befriend him.”

Thomas Garrett said these words as part of his closing argument in response to a judge, who said, “Thomas, I hope you will never be caught at this business again.” The business this judge referred to was helping enslaved people escape from south to north in the United States. The trial, which took place in 1846, was a lawsuit by two enslavers for help Thomas provided a family that escaped. Thomas received a guilty verdict and a fine, leaving him in financial ruin.

But as he promised, Thomas, an ardent abolitionist, continued helping people escape enslavement, just as he had been doing since first assisting to rescue a free Black woman his family employed after her kidnapping by slave traders who intended to sell her in the South in 1813. Thomas was twenty-four years old then. His resolve remained unchanged post-conviction, even as threats, assaults, and harrassment continued. From his home in Wilmington, Delaware, the dividing line between North and South, Thomas was instrumental to the Underground Railroad. Working with Harriet Tubman and others, Thomas was able to help about 2,500 people make their way to freedom.

He actively worked on behalf of minority groups into his early 80s, retiring shortly after the passing of the 15th Amendment in 1870. He passed away the following year.

“Abolitionist Thomas Garrett: a snapshot biography” sources:

Kathleen Lonsdale, Is Peace Possible?, Penguin Books, 1957, p. 124 (referring to Speak Truth to Power by the AFSC) / Portrait taken circa 1850, Boston Public Library (no changes made) / Wikimedia Commons / Quote: History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, Vol. 2 (1874) by Henry Wilson, p. 85; also in Station Master on the Underground Railroad: The Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett (2005) by James A. McGowan, p. 65 / Wikipedia