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The Pearl

They planned to sail down the Potomac River, then up Chesapeake Bay to freedom. But high winds battered the schooner Pearl, allowing nearly eighty African slaves from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia who had boarded the vessel in Washington D.C. to be recaptured.

Slave Auction
Slave Auction. (Credit: Courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, Northern Illinois University.)
The Pearl incident in 1848 became the largest attempted slave escape in the United States. The vessel was chartered for $100 by free African-Americans to help enslaved family members escape. As punishment, many of the slaves were sold to slave traders in Georgia and Louisiana, and two men sailing the vessel were tried and sent to prison.

Escape on the Pearl.
Escape on the Pearl. (Credit: Courtesy of the Pearl Coalition)
“Freedom might have been geographically close but a very different thing to achieve,” Mary Kay Ricks, author of “Escape on the Pearl,” told The Washington Post. “It was an event that shook Washington. It shook Congress.”

In 1831 – seventeen years before the Pearl escape attempt – Nat Turner, a slave, led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, where slaves killed more than fifty white people, the largest number of whites to die in a slave-led uprising in the South. After the attacks, angry white vigilantes killed dozens of slaves and drove hundreds of free blacks into exile in the reign of terror that followed. The state of Virginia executed fifty-six slaves accused of being part of the rebellion.

But because the Pearl incident took place in the nation’s capitol, it deepened divisions between slave owners and abolitionists, and generated Congressional debates about slavery that would eventually lead to it being abolished in Washington in 1862.

“The attempted escape is revealing about Americans both black and white, slave and free, powerful and powerless,” author Josephine F. Pacheco wrote in her book, “The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac.” “It was significant in the story of American slavery and anti-slavery.”

Spirit of the Pearl
Spirit of the Pearl. (Credit: Courtesy of the Pearl Coalition)
Today, the Pearl Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group of historians and educators hopes to restore and rebuild a replica of the Pearl to foster a modern cultural understanding of slaves, slavery, and escapes from slavery in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. The coalition is also working to develop education programs for youths.

On the Web:
The Pearl Coalition

Author Mary Kay Ricks discusses her book “Escape on the Pearl” on NPR.


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