The Ambiguities of Race and the Permanence of Slavery: A Look at George W. Farris, Escaped Slave
Newspaper accounts from across the nation in the 1850s tell the tale of an escaped slave calling himself George Washington Farris. The story detailed by these accounts highlights racial ambiguity in a way that serves to underscore the true foundations of slavery: power, caste, and hierarchy. The story– pieced together from newspaper accounts and genealogical data– is as follows.
A slave calling himself George Washington Farris escaped from Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1852. Farris was said to have been born in Alabama, the son of a mulatto house servant and plantation owner George Orville Ragland. He fled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and he found work as a brick mason, in which line of work he had considerable experience. He married a woman named Mary Ann Wickham and they had a daughter named Harriet.
George Farris’s father, George Orville Ragland, was born in Virginia and was a planter in Madison County, Alabama at the time of Farris’ escape. He also worked in the brick industry in Chattanooga, Memphis, and Tuscumbia. Shortly after Farris ran away, Ragland posted this advertisement in the Chattanooga Gazette: “Runaway from the subscriber, a very bright boy, twenty-two years old, named Wash. He might pass himself for a white man, as he is very bright, has sandy hair, blue eyes, and a fine set of teeth.”
Farris had escaped Alabama but he did not remain a free man for long. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it much more difficult for slaves to escape to the North. The act punished civilians who helped escaped slaves and also law enforcement officials who did not arrest them. The law further provided monetary incentives for law enforcement officers who captured escaped slaves. In 1858 a man named George Shaw, who had worked in Alabama and was familiar with Farris, lured the unsuspecting man to St. Louis, Missouri with a promising job offer. Some accounts say Shaw happened upon Farris in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; others recount how he pursued him for five years, collecting a large amount of money from George Ragland for his efforts. Regardless, once Farris was in Missouri, Shaw contacted Ragland who sent his son (Farris’ half-brother) and a Mr. William R. Julian up to capture him and bring him back to Tuscumbia. Farris learned of their plot and escaped to Brunswick, Missouri. It was in Brunswick, MO that the kidnappers finally caught up with Farris and apprehended him. They took him back to Tuscumbia and forced him back into slavery.
George Shaw then conspired with Ragland and another man named J.A. Torrance to capture Farris’ daughter, Harriet, and to bring her to Tuscumbia as well. Fortunately for the girl, the men were apprehended and arrested for attempted kidnapping. Shaw was thrown in jail for kidnapping Farris. The law in Pittsburg apparently thought Farris to be a white man, and not a slave.
While Shaw was in jail in Pittsburgh, a group of notable men from the Shoals region met and drafted a public letter in which they declared the arrest of Shaw “fanaticism” and that the facts of the case should be presented to the people of the South. Among these local dignitaries were judge William Basil Wood, U.S. Representative George S. Houston, and judge and later governor of Alabama E. A. O’Neal. Farris’ former owner, Miles Owen, who had sold him some twenty years prior, came forward to attempt to prove that Farris was indeed a slave. These acts were not done to re-enslave Farris, for that had already been accomplished. Thus, the most prominent men in Northwest Alabama intervened on behalf of George Shaw, who was sitting in jail in Pittsburgh for the kidnapping of Farris and the attempted kidnapping of the man’s daughter. These men were advocating for the rights of slave owners to retrieve their property, protected by federal law.
George Farris “passed” as white. He had little trouble escaping slavery because he looked white. He had little trouble getting a job because he looked white. He married a white woman. His daughter was free because her mother was a free white woman. Yet, like many slaves, George Farris inherited his slave status from his mother, despite the fact that his father was a wealthy plantation owner.
Incidents like these emphasize the rigidity of the system of slavery and racism. Following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), race was determined by a “one-drop” heritage rule rather than physical appearance; plantiff Homer Plessy, like George Farris, appeared white. This practice served to emphasize the foundation of slavery: a strict caste system based on racial inequality. Slave owners such as Ragland and Miles Owen were beneficiaries of a system based more on caste, in Farris’ case, than physical attributes. Understanding the lengths to which Florence’s forefathers went to secure this system is crucial to dismantling the legacy it has left behind.
Originally published by Project Say Something, History & Race in Florence, AL, 2016, All rights reserved.
“A Kidnapping Case,” The New York Times, New York, NY. Aug. 5, 1858.
Daily Nashville Patriot, Nashville, TN., Oct. 19, 1858. P. 2
DuBose, Joel Campbell. Notable Men Of Alabama: Personal and Genealogical, Volume 2. Atlanta, GA: Southern Historical Association, 1904. P 235.
“George O. Ragland,” The Chattanooga Gazette, Tenn. Oct. 5, 1852.
Goodspeed, Weston Arthur. Standard History of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Chicago, IL: H.R. Cornell & Co., 1898. P 825.
Lowell Daily Citizen and News, Lowell, Mass., Nov. 19, 1858
McDonald, William L. A Walk Through the Past: People and Places of Florence and Lauderdale County. Florence, AL: Bluewater Publications, 1997. P. 90.
Pittsburg Weekly Gazette, Pittsburg, PA. Feb. 23, 1869. P. 8.