Evidence of URR Activity in Portsmouth
This page presents preliminary findings based on ongoing research.
Portsmouth, Virginia, like its sister town of Norfolk, provided an urban environment for enslaved Africans and African Americans. Many of the slaves lived apart from their masters and were able to move freely through the town. This mobility allowed African Americans, especially those who were enslaved and hired out, to segue into a variety of port-related occupations, albeit at a lower rate of pay than whites.
Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, newspapers in Virginia reported about a clandestine organization that was making considerable headway in undermining slavery in the Tidewater region. This was particularly disturbing for those in port areas like Portsmouth. Rumors circulated that ship captains were secretly rushing slaves out of the area, and that a very active Underground Railroad operation was in effect in Portsmouth.
The following is a working list of evidence currently under review by the Norfolk State team to prove the extensive activities of the URR in Portsmouth.
1. The NSU team is studying the life of Clarissa Davis, who ran away from Portsmouth in May 1854 at the age of 22. Ms. Davis hid from bounty hunters for 75 days in Portsmouth before dressing as a man and braving a rain storm in the middle-of-the night to catch a ship to Philadelphia. One of the sailors on the ship helped her hide in a box. Once Ms. Davis reached Philadelphia, she changed her name to Mary Armstead.
2. The NSU team is attempting to identify those persons referred to in the following newspaper advertisement:
Oct. 20, 1857
ESCAPE OF NEGROES – Saturday night last, a negro stamped took place hereabout. A negro man belonging to Wm. H. Wilson, of this place; tow other men, the property of Joseph Carter, a servant woman belonging to James Murdaugh, and other darkies, made their escape from Portsmouth , and have not since been heard of. This “underground railroad” movement may, however, prove an abortion.
3. The NSU team is attempting to reconstruct the URR network described in 1937 by Jane Pyatt, a former slave in Portsmouth, who recounted her story to a WPA interviewer. Ms. Pyatt said that the blocks around Emanuel A.M.E. Church on North Street (in the downtown area) were used by African Americans who supported the activities of the URR.
4. The NSU team is evaluating the oral history of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, which holds that several locations in the church were used as hiding places for African Americans seeking sanctuary. According to oral accounts, the Emanuel A.M.E. Church was used as a station house from which runaway slaves departed to points in the North. The attic was reportedly used as a lookout for the Underground Railroad. Whenever the church was harboring runaways, lookouts were posted in case city officials invaded the church. The area behind the organ was said to be where members hid escaped slaves. None of these assertions, however, can yet be substantiated, since the runaways left no artifacts or accounts that detail these specifics.
5. The NSU team is undertaking an extensive bibliographic analysis to locate all individuals who are mentioned in the primary and secondary literature on the URR. Since numerous oral accounts of runaway slaves and the Underground Railroad activity have been recorded over the years, from William Still's The Underground Railroad to the WPA Slave Narratives, we are still conducting further research to document this clandestine activity, especially ownership of surrounding homes, ships entering the port that were rumored to carry runaways, and related issues.