Clarissa Davis



Clarissa fled from Portsmouth, Va., in May, 1854, with two of her brothers. Two months and a half before she succeeded in getting off, Clarissa had made a desperate effort, but failed. The brothers succeeded, but she was left. She had not given up all hope of escape, however, and therefore sought “a safe hiding-place until an opportunity might offer,” by which she could follow her brothers on the U.G.R.R. Clarissa was owned by Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Burkley, of Portsmouth, under whom she had always served.

Of them she spoke favorably, saying that she “had not been used as hard as many others were.” At this period, Clarissa was about twenty-two years of age, of a bright brown complexion, with handsome features, exceedingly respectful and modest, and possessed all the characteristics of a well-bred young lady. For one so little acquainted with books as she was, the correctness of her speech was perfectly astonishing.

For Clarissa and her two brothers a “reward of one thousand dollars” was kept standing in the papers for a length of time, as these (articles) were considered very rare and valuable; the best that could be produced in Virginia.

In the meanwhile the brothers had passed safely on to New Bedford, but Clarissa remained secluded, “waiting for the storm to subside.” Keeping up courage day by day, for seventy-five days, with the fear of being detected and severely punished, and then sold, after all her hopes and struggles, required the faith of a martyr. Time after time, when she hoped to succeed in making her escape, ill luck seemed to disappoint her, and nothing but intense suffering appeared to be in store. Like many others, under the crushing weight of oppression, she thought she “should have to die” ere she tasted liberty. In this state of mind, one day, word was conveyed to her that the steamship, City of Richmond, had arrived from Philadelphia, and that the steward on board (with whom she was acquainted), had consented to secrete her this trip, if she could manage to reach the ship safely, which was to start the next day. This news to Clarissa was both cheering and painful. She had been “praying all the time while waiting,” but now she felt “that if it would only rain right hard the next morning about three o’clock, to drive the police officers off the street, then she could safely make her way to the boat.” Therefore she prayed anxiously all that day that it would rain, “but no sign of rain appeared till towards midnight.” The prospect looked horribly discouraging; but she prayed on, and at the appointed hour (three o’clock—before day), the rain descended in torrents. Dressed in male attire, Clarissa left the miserable coop where she had been almost without light or air for two and a half months, and unmolested, reached the boat safely, and was secreted in a box by Wm. Bagnal, a clever young man who sincerely sympathized with the slave, having a wife in slavery himself; and by him she was safely delivered into the hands of the Vigilance Committee.

Clarissa Davis here, by advice of the Committee, dropped her old name, and was straightway christened “Mary D. Armstead.” Desiring to join her brothers and sister in New Bedford, she was duly furnished with her U.G.R.R. passport and directed thitherward. Her father, who was left behind when she got off, soon after made his way on North, and joined his children. He was too old and infirm probably to be worth anything, and had been allowed to go free, or to purchase himself for a mere nominal sum. Slaveholders would, on some such occasions, show wonderful liberality in letting their old slaves go free, when they could work no more. After reaching New Bedford, Clarissa manifested her gratitude in writing to her friends in Philadelphia repeatedly, and evinced a very lively interest in the U.G.R.R. The appended letter indicates her sincere feelings of gratitude and deep interest in the cause—

NEW BEDFORD, August 26, 1855.

MR. STILL:—I avail myself to write you thes few lines hopeing they may find you and your family well as they leaves me very well and all the family well except my father he seams to be improveing with his shoulder he has been able to work a little I received the papers I was highly delighted to receive them I was very glad to hear from you in the wheler case I was very glad to hear that the persons ware safe I was very sory to hear that mr Williamson was put in prison but I know if the praying part of the people will pray for him and if he will put his trust in the lord he will bring him out more than conquer please remember my Dear old farther and sisters and brothers to your family kiss the children for me I hear that the yellow fever is very bad down south now if the underground railroad could have free course the emergrant would cross the river of gordan rapidly I hope it may continue to run and I hope the wheels of the car may be greesed with more substantial greese so they may run over swiftly I would have wrote before but circumstances would not permit me Miss Sanders and all the friends desired to be remembered to you and your family I shall be pleased to hear from the underground rail road often.

Yours respectfully,


Rev. William Jackson

Amelia Piper

Amelia Piper, Abolitionist (1796-1856)

Amelia Piper fled Alexandria VA with her husband and four children between 1826 – 1830 and came to New Bedford by sea. Family lore has it that they came to New Bedford on a schooner owned by the Rotch family.  Once safely housed in New Bedford, the Piper family members did indeed work for William Rotch Rodman as domestics, farmhands, and ship workers for many years.  Amelia was born in Alexandria and was not listed on any of the records of free blacks in Virginia. Amelia and her husband William may not have been free when she and her family came to New Bedford.

At the time, there were many New Bedford sea captains and crew members who traded down the Atlantic coast who would assist fugitives in their attempts to flee the South. New Bedford had a reputation as an abolitionist stronghold and a place where fugitives were welcomed and protected; slavery had officially ended in Massachusetts in 1783. Amelia, her husband William, and son Robert are mentioned in several slave narratives written by freedom seekers who spent time in New Bedford. Amelia’s name appears in several articles in the Liberator that reviewed the activities of New Bedford abolitionists at anti-slavery rallies in the city and in Boston.

As one of the managers of the New Bedford Female Union Society, she organized one of the first anti-slavery fairs held in New Bedford on January 1, 1840. The fair was held to raise funds in aid of the Liberator newspaper and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Women abolitionists supported the activities of the Anti-slavery society by developing special handiwork for sale, collecting and selling the autographs of famous men and women, and selling baked goods. The fairs were usually held once a year and New England cities such as Boston and New Bedford would take turns hosting the fairs. Funds would be used to support the speaking tours of noted abolitionists, pay the printing bills of the Liberator, and on occasion help pay for the freedom of fugitives in danger of being returned to slavery. The New Bedford Female Union Society was an African American women’s anti-slavery group and while women were organized to end slavery, the groups were still by and large segregated. Quoting from a letter signed by Amelia as the manger and published in the Liberator, the group met twice weekly “to ply our needles and fingers, to talk over the wrongs of our countrymen and women in chains, and pray that the time will soon come when every yoke shall be broken.”1

Amelia and her husband helped many fugitives who came to New Bedford by providing shelter and assisting them in managing their new life in freedom. These fugitives are referred to in the letters of abolitionists and conductors on the Underground Railroad as “packages”. Those escaping will remain nameless but Amelia’s role as a conductor will not as her bravery was recorded in the slave narratives of appreciative fugitives. One of the best-known fugitives assisted by Amelia and William was John Jacobs, brother of Harriet Jacobs who shipped out of New Bedford with help from the Pipers. The Piper family served as a go-between for John and his sister, writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs while he was out to sea.  Amelia and William Piper were the first members of three generations of a family that were active abolitionists and Underground Railroad activists who fought for the end of slavery in the United States.   

1 The Liberator, August 23, 1839. Anti-Slavery Fair. Boston, MA

William Cooper Nell. Selected Writings 1831-1874. Edited by Dorothy Porter. Black Classic Press, 2002. P. 343

James de Abajian, comp. Blacks in Selected Newspapers, Censuses and other Sources.., 3 vols. Boston: G.K. Hall 1977

Photo of Amelia Piper in the collection of Lee Blake

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