Slave Descendants Remember 'Escape on the Pearl'

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WASHINGTON - The largest-ever attempted slave escape took place April 15, 1848. Many believe the "Escape on the Pearl" was one of the main reasons the slave trade was abolished in the nation's capital. 

But despite the event's importance, it's a story many don't know about.

About 70 slaves, including Mary and Emily Edmondson and their four older brothers, were part of the group that boarded a schooner called "The Pearl," hoping to sail to freedom.

Their father Paul was a free man, but their mother Amelia was a slave -- which meant her children were born slaves.

Deeply religious, the Edmonsons prayed for a successful escape knowing that it was all in God's hands.

"You don't realize that there's a plan set for you. You just go along in life," said Emily's great granddaughter Imogene Gilbert. "In fact, you don't think about what's going to happen, what you're going to do. You just go on. If it's God's will you go on the right path."

A Twist of Fate

The plan was for "The Pearl" to sail down the Potomac River up the Chesapeake Bay and on to a new life.

"So they waited, and waited and waited for wind and it took a while and it set them back. Finally with the sun coming up, they were only in Alexandria, Va.," explained Mary Kay Ricks, author of Escape on the Pearl.

"There was no wind, so they waited, and waited and waited, and a good wind came and took them down the river," she continued. "Unfortunately, that wind became fierce. So they had to drop their anchor in Maryland."

There, the slaves were caught -- right where the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay meet -- and everyone on the ship was taken back to Washington.

"The slaves were marched two by two, the men in chains, up to the jail and everyone watched," Ricks continued. "Not just the white anti-abolitionist people, but some of the relatives of the people who were captured."

WEB EXTRA: Listen as Floyd Robinson, member of Asbury UMC, sings the old negro spiritual 'Steal Away to Jesus.'

But Mary and Emily remained faithful.

"Even upon being captured, they walked proudly with their heads up and singing spirituals," added Stephan Gilbert, another descendant of Emily. "That's nothing but faith. And those that have strong faith know the peace that comes with it."

The Edmondsons were eventually sold to a slave trader in Alexandria, Va. The former slave pen that Mary and Emily were housed in now stands just 30 feet away from a statue honoring them.

After their capture, the six Edmondson siblings were sent to New Orleans.

Because they were attractive, Mary and Emily were going to be sold as sex slaves. But yellow fever broke out they were brought back to the Washington area because of their value.

Fighting for Freedom

Throughout the ordeal, Amelia and Paul worked with members of the Underground Railroad to come up with the money to free their children.

"The Underground Railroad was really not a physical railroad, but a movement of individuals starting with the slaves themselves who yearned to and desired to be free," said A.G. Miller, religion professor at Oberlin College.

Their parents also reached out to the Christian community. Lonise Robinson, historian of Asbury United Methodist Church shared part of that letter with CBN News. It was written by Pastor Matthew A. Turner.

"The case of these girls is the one that claims the sympathies of the benevolent, and I most earnestly pray that the evidence of their friends may be crowned with success in securing their freedom," he wrote.

Those words led renowned minister and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher to New York's Tabernacle Broadway Church where he preached a fiery sermon that finished raising the necessary funds.

"He said to people, 'Think as if they were your daughters. Think as if they were going to be taken away, these two young Methodist daughters,'" Ricks said.

"And then he pointed to their father, Paul Edmonson who had come up from Maryland and said, 'Here is their father,'" he continued. "'Think as if you were in his place,' and it was a magnificent evening."

Once they were free, the Edmonson sisters joined the anti-slave circuit with the likes of Frederick Douglass.

Harriett Beecher Stowe depicted their journey in her book, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe sent Mary and Emily to Oberlin, Ohio -- an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

"When blacks came into this community they felt this was a safe haven," Miller explained. "It was never easy. They had to struggle like everyone else to try to feed themselves, but they didn't have to stand in fear of being turned in."

WEB EXTRA: Watch an interview with Dr. Miller to learn more about the history of Oberlin, Ohio.

Continuing On

Mary died of tuberculosis in Oberlin at the age of 21.

Heartbroken, Emily returned to Washington and attended the Normal School for Colored Girls to become a teacher.

Emily and Douglass became very good friends and lived near each other in what is now known as Anacostia.

Eventually all of the Edmonson children were freed. In fact, one brother ended up moving to Australia.

"I guess people have stories and they trace their roots and their family is from another state, another country," Stephan said.

"But to have lived in the same place where they lived and walk the same streets that they walked, there's something touching and special," he said. 

Emily died in 1895.

Members of the family are credited with starting two churches in Washington that still exist today, John Wesley A.M.E. and Asbury United Methodist Church.

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CBN News
Robin Mazyck and John Jessup

Robin Mazyck and John Jessup

CBN News Washington, D.C. Bureau

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