Middletown Life Magazine — Summer 2008
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Riding Along The Underground Railroad
Steve Hoffman

Odessa, Delaware served as an important stop for slaves in pursuit of freedom

The slave’s harrowing journey from the deep south all the way up to Delaware remains shrouded in mystery. But on that fateful spring morning long ago, when this country was quite different, the man showed up on Daniel Corbit’s rear doorstep and pleaded for help.

Daniel Corbit was one of Odessa’s most prominent residents, the son of the distinguished and well-known William Corbit. It had been William who had built the stately Georgian house in 1772. Daniel Corbit was an active abolitionist. He was a Quaker and consequently opposed the Peculiar Institution. He had already given land and built a parsonage to be used by Quakers in the Odessa area. Certainly he would have given a helping hand to the slave, whose name, it is believed, was Sam. But Daniel Corbit wasn’t home on the morning that the slave came asking for help.

It was his wife, Mary C. Corbit, who responded to the request and took the slave in.

Sam, the slave, told Mary C. Corbit that his pursuers weren’t far behind. It was a dangerous time to be helping a slave, but Mary

C. Corbit acted quickly. She took Sam upstairs to an eave closet that could be reached only by a very small door.

It was true: The pursuing sheriff wasn’t far behind Sam. Almost as soon as Sam was sheltered upstairs, the sheriff and his posse came asking about the whereabouts of the runaway slave. The Sheriff demanded that Mary C. Corbit allow him to look around the house as the slave had been reported as entering the home. The sheriff came upon the eave closet, but told the men with him that there was no need to look in there as it was too small to hide the man that he sought.

Decades later, when Mary Corbit Warner, the daughter of Daniel and Mary C. Corbit, spoke in front of the Delaware Chapter of the Colonial Dames of America in 1914, she told the story about how her mother had hidden the freedom seeker in the eave closet of their home in Odessa.

She told the audience about how Sam had asked for help. “‘Oh, Mistus please save me. I am a slave and because I was to be sold and sent far away from my wife and children, I run away hopin’ to get to Pennsylvania. The Sheriff and bloodhounds are on my track. Please, ma’am, won’t you hide me?’” Mary Corbit Warner recalled that her mother was confronted by three men that day, the Sheriff and two others. The Sheriff said that the slave was valued at $3,000.

“My mother very quietly gave them permission to examine the house, following them and opening all closet doors, and any place they wished to see. When they reached the attic her knees trembled and her heart beat so violently, she feared the men must be conscious of her perturbation. One of them pointed to the odd little door under the eaves and laughingly said, ‘well, Sam could not crawl into that cubbyhole.’”

Later, after the Sheriff and his men left, Mary C. Corbit took a quilt and some food to Sam so that he could be as comfortable as possible in the narrow quarters.

Mary Corbit Warner recalled that at dusk, her mother took Sam to the main road that would lead him to Pennsylvania, and handed him some money for the journey.

“He fell on his knees, thanking her, and crying, asked God to bless this kind lady who was helping him to freedom.” Once Sam reached Pennsylvania safely, he sent a letter to Mary C. Corbit thanking her for her help in his time of distress.

Even though Mary Corbit Warner was aware of the importance of the actions that her mother took that morning, and the efforts of her abolitionist father, it would have been difficult for her to fully grasp the significance of the role that her home would play in one of the most dramatic operations in American history.

By some estimates, as many as 100,000 slaves may have found their way to freedom through the vast, secretive underground railroad.

Mary Corbit Warner’s ancestral home, which is today known as the Corbit-Sharp House, is now listed as one of nine Delaware sites on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The site was evaluated as “making a significant contribution to the understanding of the Underground Railroad in American History.” Mary Corbit Warner’s presentation to the Colonial Dames of America actually provided the necessary documentation to allow the Corbit-Sharp House to earn the historic distinction.

Research by Robin Krawitz, an historian with the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, unearthed documented accounts of the Corbit family helping with the Underground Railroad.

In a 1996 book published by historian William H. Williams titled “Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865” the speech by Mary Corbit Warner is recounted.
“The publication of this information brought a new awareness of the history of the building outside the sphere of the decorative arts,” explained Krawitz. It was Krawitz who made the Historic Odessa Foundation aware of the documentation.

It was hardly a secret about the Corbit family’s efforts with the Underground Railroad.

Daniel Corbit, in particular, earned a reputation for being willing to assist freedom seekers as was noted in William Still’s 1872 book, “The Underground Railroad.” Daniel Corbit was one of three men noted in a letter written by Ezekiel Jenkins and carried by conductor Samuel D. Burris when escorting the Samuel and Emeline Hawkins family from Camden, Kent County to the Middletown-Odessa area, a day’s journey north and the next logical stop on the route to freedom.

Harriet Tubman, the famous runaway slave from Maryland who became one of the most productive conductors on the Underground Railroad, is known to have used “stations” in Camden, Dover, Blackbird, Middletown, Odessa, and New Castle in Delaware. Because of its central location, Odessa played a pivotal role in the entire network through Delaware.

Tubman’s friend, Thomas Garrett, was also a railroad conductor and lived in nearby Wilmington. The Appoquinimink Friends Meeting House, which is less than a mile from the Corbit- Sharp House, was also recently accepted into the Network of Freedom.

“Our mission is to preserve and encourage the use of our historic buildings by the general public, students, and scholars in order to learn and appreciate the history of Delaware’s Colonial period,” explained Debbie Buckson, the Executive Director of the Historic Odessa Foundation. “In our dedication to educating our visitors and broadening our interpretive mission on the role Odessa played in the Underground Railroad and in honor of our Acceptance into the Network to Freedom, we have developed as part of our Living History Education program Freedom Seekers: The Odessa Story.” This Odessa Story , to be launched in the fall, will give students an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of fugitive slaves working their way to the North and freedom. Children will explore the hiding places and routes used by local abolitionists in Odessa to conceal and conduct slaves along in their journey to freedom.

Buckson described Delaware’s role during the Civil War as “complicated.” In a lot of ways, Delaware and its residents were caught in the middle of a titanic struggle that had serious moral implications.

A large portion of the country looked at slaves as property.

Laws were passed to prevent antislavery forces from aiding the slaves as they journeyed for freedom.

As Buckson noted, “It was incredibly dangerous time, whether you were a slave or trying to help a slave. That’s one of the reasons why so few records existed.” As Johnnye Baker, the Director of Education for the Historic Odessa Foundation, explained: “Geographically, we were in the middle {of the north and south} and we were at a nexus for several different points. We were one of the links in the total network to freedom.” The Middletown-Odessa-Townsend area has always been an intersection of important paths, whether it was for the Indians or for the Underground Railroad later on, Baker noted.

William Still also wrote about other Odessa-area residents who played significant roles in Delaware’s Underground Railroad.

The Quaker community based around the Appoquinimink Meeting House was very active in the antislavery movement with individuals like farmer John Nunn leading the effort. Nunn was a “station master” and helped several slaves escape to freedom along with Burris, a conductor on the railroad.

Nunn was eventually turned in by some neighbors and was sued by owners of slaves under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.

Hunn was fined $2,500 and was forced to sell his farm. But for Burris, getting caught was far worse. He was actually sentenced back into slavery, but fortunately was purchased off the auction block by an antislavery activist from Philadelphia.

Dangerous times indeed.

Buckson explained that Odessa was a popular path for slaves heading north because the shortest path over land between the Delaware River to the Chesapeake Bay went right through the area.

She said that the antislavery activity that took place in the town is a very important part of Odessa’s history.

“It’s extremely significant for Odessa. We’ll be one of only three stops on the Underground Railroad in Delaware with regular hours, and probably the only one with tours.”
Educating youngsters about the role that Odessa played is an important part of the mission of the Historic Odessa Foundation.

“We have children here almost every day,” Buckson explained.

The executive director of the Historic Odessa Foundation marveled at how Daniel Corbit, one of Odessa’s most prominent citizens, and his family, participated in the abolitionist movement.

“They had amazing courage. Those were scary times. You were putting yourself and your family in great jeopardy by trying to help any slave. And this was one of the most prominent And wealthiest families in town. They had a lot to lose.” What they gained by their efforts, though, is an esteemed place in Delaware’s history.

The Historic Odessa Foundation owns and operates the following historic sites in Odessa: The Wilson-Warner House: Built by prosperous merchant David Wilson in 1769, this house exemplifies Delaware- Georgian architecture.

The Brick Hotel: Built in 1822, the hotel welcomed merchants, ship captains, and visitors to the busy port town.

The Corbit-Sharp House: William Corbit operated a tannery on the banks of the Appoquinimkink Creek and was one of the town’s leading citizens. He built the Philadelphiastyle Georgian house in 1774. Later, H. Rodney Sharp acquired the house and restored it, as well as several other significant buildings in town. He is thought to be responsible for the first efforts at history preservation in Odessa.

The Collins-Sharp House: One of the oldest houses in the state, it dates back to around 1700. This is the center for educational programming and cooking demonstrations, gardening, and other colonial activities are demonstrated.

The bank: Originally built in 1853 as the First National Bank of Odessa and served the community until 2000.
Today, the bank houses the Foundation’s visitor’s center and offices.