FREEDOM: ESCAPING FROM BROOKLINE
The Underground Railroad
Note: While this website focuses on slavery in Brookline, we want to remind visitors to the site of the longer picture of the struggle for racial justice and equality in town. So we include some materials on the 2nd and 3rd phases of freedom.
In the 19th c., Brookline was home to a minority of determined anti-slavery organizers. For many years most town residents preferred to sidestep the issue altogether.
The fullest account of Brookliners' anti-slavery work, and the difficulties they faced, was written in 1899 and published as a Brookline Historical Publications Society pamphlet: "Brookline in the Anti-Slavery Movement" (available at the Brookline Public Library).
The town was home to three Underground Railroad conductors: William Bowditch, Samuel Philbrick and Ellis Gray Loring.
The homes of the first two men still stand at 9 Toxteth St. and 182 Walnut St.
National Park Service plaques in front of these homes provide some details on the work of these families. The plaques also give important information on who stayed there on their courageous way north to freedom.
Samuel and Sarah Bowditch & the people they sheltered:
The Bowditches sheltered a number of people whose names are lost to us. The family also hosted Henry "Box" Brown, who had escaped from slavery by being nailed tight into a box and then mailed north. Henry "Box" Brown came to Brookline to tell his story as part of his anti-slavery organizing. The Bowditches sheltered a white fugitive from slavery: John Brown's son, who had avoided capture at Harper's Ferry and was heading to Canada to avoid capture by the federal marshals.
There is a story about William Bowditch's participation in a daring rescue of an enslaved man. One day another Underground Railroad conductor came to ask Bowditch to help free a man who had escaped slavery by stowing away on a ship heading north. Unfortunately, the man had been discovered and was now in the ship's brig in the Boston harbor, waiting to be sent back to slavery.
Bowditch readily agreed to help. As he and his friend were riding into Boston, Bowditch wondered aloud how they could free this man. His friend replied that he'd come up with something.
Once on the Boston docks, the two men rowed out to the ship and shouted out for the captain. A voice said that he wasn't on board right now. Bowditch's friend then called for the first mate, to which the seaman replied that he was the first mate. Bowditch's friend then shouted, "We've come for the prisoner!" to which the mate said "aye, aye, sir!"
With the prisoner in their boat, the men then rowed like mad for shore, jumped into their buggy and drove off as fast as possible.
Samuel and Eliza Philbrick and the story of one woman they sheltered:
Samuel and Eliza Philbrick sheltered in their Brookline home a woman who with her husband had made one of the most daring escapes from slavery: Ellen Craft Ellen was very light-skinned, because her mother had been raped and impregnated by her owner. Ellen had fallen in love with and "married" William Craft. They decided to escape to freedom with Ellen disguising herself as a white and male slave owner traveling north for medical treatment, with William accompanying "him" as "his" slave. They succeeded, despite frighteningly close calls, and made their new home in Boston. Both traveled to speak at anti-slavery meetings. When the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, their owners had the right to force them back to Georgia into slavery. Ellen moved quickly to Brookline, where she hid at the Philbrick's home, while William hid in the South End. Several days later, they were able to travel safely to Canada and from there to England, where they continued to speak out against American slavery. They had children, learned to read. When the Civil War ended, they chose to return to Georgia where they established a cooperative school for freed slaves.
In addition to their support of Ellen Craft, the Philbricks organized a number of pubic meetings to educate and motivate the public against slavery. They were also major financial contributors to anti-slavery organizations.