As with many others associated with the Underground Railroad, the
life of Samuel Burris still holds many mysteries. A native of Delaware and a free black,
Burris moved his family to the relative safety of Philadelphia. It is from Philadelphia
that he would make his trips into the South to free other African Americans from slavery.
Burris began his service on
the Underground Railroad by 1845. He worked closely with John Hunn to assist slaves
escaping from Delaware and neighboring Maryland. Burris also worked closely with William
Still, an African American leader in the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia.
Burris knew the risks associated with Underground Railroad and was willing to take
them. On one occasion he said, "helping slaves to regain freedom... in the state of
Delaware is a crime next to that of murder, if committed by a colored man." The
punishment for an African American caught aiding slaves was severe. Burris could
be sold into slavery for a period of seven years.
In June 1847 his fears became a reality. He was captured in the act of assisting Maria
Mathews, an escaping slave from Dover Hundred. Burris was thrown into Dover jail for ten
to fourteen months before his trial. At his trial he was convicted and sentenced to be
auctioned into slavery. Unknown to Burris, members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society
plotted to free their friend. Isaac A. Flint, a member of the society, attended the
auction posing as a slave trader. When Burris took his place on the auction block Flint
examined him just as he had seen the other slave traders do. Flint performed perfectly, convincing
even Burris that he was being sold into slavery. However he saved Burris from
the horror of slavery by outbidding the other traders. The bill of sale completed, Isaac
Flint and Samuel Burris made a speedy return to Philadelphia.
Samuel Burris never again returned to Delaware, remaining in Philadelphia until
1852 when he and his family moved to California. He kept in contact with the Underground
Railroad through William Still. After the Civil War ended Burris worked through black
churches to raise money to aid free blacks. Samuel Burris died
in San Francisco in 1868.