White mobs rioted in Washington in 1848 to defend slaveholders’ rights after 76 Black enslaved people staged an unsuccessful mass escape on a boat


An abolitionist lithograph of the slave trade in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Capitol in the background. PHOTO/ Library of Congress

The summer of 2020 was not the first time America saw protests and violence over the treatment of African Americans.

4 paragraphs from an 1848 newspaper account of the capture of the Pearl.
An account on April 19, 1848, of the Pearl’s capture appearing in The Daily Union newspaper of Washington, D.C. PHOTO/Library of Congress

Long before the demonstrations over Black Lives Matter, long before the marches of the civil rights era, strife over racism convulsed the nation’s capital. But those riots in Washington, D.C., were led by proslavery mobs.

In the spring of 1848, conspirators orchestrated one of the largest escapes from slavery in U.S. history. In doing so, they sparked a crisis that entangled advocates for slavery’s abolition, white supremacists, the press and even the president.

Daniel Bell, a free Black man in Washington, wanted to liberate his enslaved wife, children and grandchildren. Citing a promise of freedom from their onetime owner, he tried but failed to do so through the courts. So he started planning an escape. A lawyer he consulted knew of others eager to flee lives of bondage. He and Bell decided to help them all.

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