Underground Railroad Operation in Virginia
Although the institution of slavery is often times seen as a purely rural phenomenon, Virginia's Tidewater region had two large urban slave centers. Norfolk and Portsmouth 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 throughout the town. This mobility allowed African Americans, especially those who were enslaved and hired out, to segue into a variety of port-related occupations. As slaves moved through the streets of these cities in the 1840s and 1850s, reports came in from newspapers creating the perception that a clandestine organization was making considerable headway in undermining slavery in the Tidewater region. William Still, one of America's most active agents for the Underground Railroad, recorded accounts of runaways who passed through his station. Published in 1871, Still's work, The Underground Railroad , recorded 745 accounts with approximately thirty percent (total of 242) given by escapees from Virginia. Of that number nearly half (total of 107) came from Hampton Roads. The book became the most widely circulated work on the anti-slavery network and an important source of information for those studying the operation of the Underground Railroad because of clues it provides of UGRR agents and transportation resources.
Needless to say, Underground Railroad activities were particularly disturbing for slaveholders and slavery supporters in port areas, like Hampton Roads. Rumors circulated that ships captains were secretly rushing slaves out of the area, and that a very active Underground Railroad was in operation in Norfolk and in Portsmouth. So threatening were the efforts of abolitionists that a local newspaper, the Beacon, sarcastically noted the apprehension of three runaway slaves in 1855, claiming that their capture resulted from the Underground Railroad being "out of order."
The source of most of the problems in Hampton Roads was the presence of two of the most active agents, Henry Lewey and William Bagnall. Lewey was a Norfolk slave who used the nom de plume, “Bluebeard,” to hide his identity until he escaped 1856 when word circulated that he was a suspected Underground Railroad agent. Not surprisingly, Lewey's activities were not unusual because accounts mentioned other enslaved African American agents who hired out their own time, thus allowing them the mobility to carry out this type of work. William Bagnall, however, was unusual. Few historical treatises have examined the role Whites had in the operation of the Underground Railroad in the South. Bagnall, a Virginia Bank bookkeeper who may have been married to a light-skinned African American, was credited with assisting in the escapes of numerous slaves and passing correspondence between those who had escaped and enslaved family members still living in Hampton Roads.
Concurrent with agent operatives in Hampton Roads was the identification of steamships listed by Still as providing assistance to escapees. While some runaway slaves secreted aboard vessels, unbeknown to its captain and crew, most received assistance, either by captains and/or stewards of these steamships. William Still's book listed the City of Richmond , the Pennsylvania , and the Augusta steamships, as well as the Kesiah schooner, as vessels that plied the local waterways, transporting runaways to points north. A person named Minkins was identified as a steward aboard the City of Richmond and the Pennsylvania who covertly worked as an UGRR conductor, along with Captains Baylis, Fountain, and Henry Lee. Still's work also identified departure points in escapee accounts. Most significant were the relatively isolated Higgins and Wrights Wharves in Norfolk and the wharves located near the Gosport Shipyard in Portsmouth.
According to our research, both Emanuel A.M.E. and Monumental Methodist Churches had individuals with abolitionist sympathies and possibly ties with the Underground Railroad. We were able to demonstrate those sympathies, but the Underground Railroad ties are circumstantial, at best. What we uncovered was a network of free Blacks and sympathetic Whites who lived throughout Portsmouth, but in proximity to the areas identified as the departure points for the Underground Railroad by runaway slaves and the 1930s WPA accounts. For example, according to oral accounts, Emanuel A.M.E. Church (formerly the African 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. Visitors to the church can still see these historic hiding places and access to the tunnel that has been bricked in since the 1860s.
Looking through historical newspaper and court records, it is clear that Underground Railroad activity was suspected. Early maps from the 1850s in Portsmouth show that Emanuel A.M.E. Church was very close to the waterfront. It is quite possible that a tunnel could have reached the wharves without detection because it would not have to have been more than 1000 yards in length. Safe houses and stations on the Underground Railroad were typically located near graveyards and churches, which served as both navigational aids and hiding places. However, what is more likely is that these anomalies were some kind of trenches (perhaps for drainage) that runaways used when making their way from a “safe area” to the wharves where the ships, assisting them in their escape, were berthed. Moreover, we found numerous examples of local White Methodist anti-slavery sympathizers and free Black Methodists who lived in and around these wharves and churches. Runaway slave accounts (and later in the WPA interviews or former slaves) identified these areas as haunts for Underground Railroad activities. For example, George Nicholson (Monumental Methodist Church members) was kicked out of the church for buying a slave without setting up means for emancipation and William Porter (a Monumental Methodist charter member) set up a means of gradual emancipation for all slaves born after his death. Although we were not able to establish evidentiary connections between these sympathizers and any direct support for the Underground Railroad, we believe we can make a circumstantial case.
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 be substantiated because the runaways left no artifacts or accounts that detail these specifics. In fact, while church folklore asserted that a bricked in area provided access to a tunnel, the survey revealed no tunnel. More than likely, this was the access to a cellar that may have been used as a hiding place for runaway slaves until the 1861.