Early life and education
Garrett was born into a prosperous landowning Quaker family on their homestead called "Riverview Farm" in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. When Thomas was a boy, one of the family's free black female servants was kidnapped by men who intended to sell her into slavery in the South. The Garrets rescued her, but this incident confirmed them in their abolitionist views, and all the sons would later become involved in abolitionism, and Thomas on a very large scale.
When their father died in 1839, the original farm was split between Thomas' brothers' Issac and Edward, who renamed their farms "Fernleaf Farm" and "Cleveland Farm", but much is preserved today as Arlington Cemetery, Thomas' house, "Thornfield" built around 1800 and in which he lived until 1822, still stands today (as a private residence) in what is now Drexel Hill in Upper Darby Township.
In the schism between Orthodox and Hicksite Quakers, Garrett split with his Orthodox family and moved to Wilmington in the neighboring slave state of Delaware to strike out on his own and pursue his struggle against slavery. He established an iron and hardware business and made it prosper.
In 1827 Society of the State of Delaware was reorganized as the Delaware Abolition Society, whose officers and directors included Garrett, William Chandler, president John Wales, vice-president Edward Worrell, and others. Later that year, Wales and Garrett represented the group at the National Convention of Abolitionists.
In 1835, Garrett became a director of the new Wilmington Gas Company, which made gas "made from rosin, at $7 per 1,000 cubic feet" for lighting lamps. In 1836, he, Chandler, Joseph Whitaker, and other partners invested and revived the Principio Furnace in Perryville, Maryland, near an important crossing of the Susquehanna River at the top of Chesapeake Bay.
Garrett openly worked as a stationmaster on the last stop of the Underground Railroad in Delaware. Because he openly defied slave hunters as well as the slave system, Garrett had no need of secret rooms in his house at 227 Shipley Street. The authorities were aware of his activities, but he was never arrested.
In 1848, however, he and fellow Quaker John Hunn were sued in federal court. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney presided at the trial in the New Castle Court House, and James A. Bayard, Jr. prosecuted the Quakers. Garrett and Hunn were found guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act by helping a family of slaves escape. As the "architect" of the escape, Garrett received a $4,500 fine. A lien was put on his house until the fine was paid, with the aid of friends. Garrett thus continued in his iron and hardware business and helping runaway slaves to freedom.
William Lloyd Garrison, whom Garrett admired greatly, once visited him. However, they held different views regarding the opposition to slavery. Garrison was willing to be a martyr to the abolition of slavery and would not defend himself if attacked physically. Garrett, on the other hand, believed slavery could only be abolished through a civil war and, when attacked physically, defended himself by subduing his attackers.
Garrett was also a friend and benefactor to the great Underground Railroad Conductor Harriet Tubman, who passed through his station many times. In addition to lodging and meals, Garrett frequently provided her with money and shoes to continue her missions conducting runaways from slavery to freedom. Garrett also provided Tubman with the money and the means for her parents to escape from the South. (Both were free people at the time Tubman rescued them, but Tubman's father faced arrest for secreting runaway slaves in his cabin.)
The number of runaways Garrett assisted has sometimes been exaggerated. He said he "only helped 2,700" before the Civil War put an end to slavery.
During the American Civil War, the free Negroes of Wilmington guarded Garrett's house. When the 15th Amendment passed, giving Negro males the right to vote, Wilmington's African Americans carried Garrett through the streets in an open barouche with a sign, "Our Moses."
Death and legacy
Garrett died on January 25, 1871, at the age of 81. Freed blacks carried his bier on their shoulders to the Quaker Meeting House on West 4th Street in Wilmington, where he was interred.
In 1993, Wilmington named Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park after the two Underground Railroad agents and friends. Pennsylvania and Delaware have also erected historical markers at sites associated with Garrett, in Drexel Hill and Wilmington, respectively. His house, Thornfield, remains private property near the historic marker on Garrett Road in Upper Darby.
- African American Registry http://aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/thomas-garrett-dedicated-abolitionist. Accessed May 10, 2015
- Scharf, John Thomas (1888). History of Delaware : 1609-1888. L.J. Richards. Retrieved November 27, 2013.
- "Items of Interest from Various Localities". The American Gas Light Journal. 75. July–December 1901.
- Historical Society of Cecil County, "Principio", Milt Diggins
- "National Historic Landmark Nomination" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
- Station Master of the Underground Railroad, the Life and Letters of Thoma Garrett, by Jame A. Mcowan: (Jefferson, NC.: McFarland & Co., 2005).
- Claus Bernet (2010). "Thomas Garrett". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). 31. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 484–486. ISBN 978-3-88309-544-8.
- Mariah Parker, Thomas Garrett, Quakers and Slavery, accessed April 17, 2011.
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