Isaac T. Hopper – “Father of the Underground Railroad”

Isaac T. Hopper (1771-1852) was an American abolitionist, prison reform advocate, co-founder of the Children’s Village in New York. He started to create a network to help fugitive slaves in the 1970s, decades before the term “Underground Railroad” was coined.

Isaac Tatem Hopper was born into a Quaker family in New Jersey on December 3, 1771. 1787, aged 16, he took on an apprenticeship and then began to work as a tailor in Philadelphia, where he lived for the next 40 years. Because Pennsylvania had abolished slavery after the Civil War, Philadelphia was a primary destination for fugitive slaves. Hopper started to help escaped slaves soon after arriving in the city, an estimated 1,000 during his stay in Philadelphia.

In 1795 he married his childhood love Sarah Tatum Hopper (1776-1822) with whom he had 10-12 children, 8 of whom survived into adulthood, most notably Abigail Hopper Gibbons who like her father was an abolitionist and social reformer and worked closely with him throughout his life.

In 1796 he became a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (the first abolition society in the US). In addition to anti-slavery activity, he volunteered as an overseer in a school for black children, as teacher for colored adults, prison inspector, guardian of the poor, firefighter, served on the committees to assist the poor, and worked with Native Americans.

Despite their large family and limited resources, Isaac and Sarah often took in impoverished Quakers. Hopper was so dedicated to assisting the less fortunate, that he ended up in financial difficulties, especially after an illness in 1809. Because he was unable to pay his debts, he was disowned by his monthly meeting in 1811. Financial strain and debt became a constant for the rest of his life.

After Sarah died in 1822, he married Hannah Attmore in 1824, with whom he had 4 more children, 2 surviving into adulthood. In 1829 he moved his family to New York City to open a Quaker and Anti-Slavery bookstore and continued philanthropic and anti-slavery work. He joined the Manumission Society, and was a founding member of both the American Anti-Slavery Society and the New York City Anti-Slavery Society. Hopper became well-known for assisting fugitive slaves not only in New York but nationwide. During the 1834 anti-abolitionist riots when the mob threatened his bookstore, he refused to follow the advice of friends to remove abolitionist literature from the display declaring that he was not “such a coward as to forsake my principles … at the bidding of a mob”. Hopper was so infamous that his son John was almost lynched in Georgia in 1837 when he was recognized while traveling.

His daughter Abigail and her husband James Sloan Gibbons‘ home was a meeting place for abolitionists as well as an Underground railroad station. He worked often with radical abolitionists and New York Vigilance Committee founder David Ruggles and Barney Corse, a fellow Quaker, and leader of the radical wing of the Manumission Society in helping actual and accused fugitive slaves and fighting kidnappers selling free blacks into slavery. In 1838, the three became involved in a controversy called “Darg Affair” or “Hughes Affair“.

John P. Darg, a slaveholder from Virginia had come to NYC with his slave Thomas Hughes, who escaped and asked Isaac T. Hopper for help. However, Hughes had not only escaped but stolen 7,000 – 8,000 USD from his master, and the New York Sun published a notice offering a reward for returning both the escaped slave and the stolen money. Isaac T. Hopper and his fellow abolitionists David Ruggles and Barney Corse came to the conclusion that the money, but not Hughes, should be returned to Darg and sought to find a compromise with Darg by returning his money in exchange for Darg to manumit Hughes. But because Hughes had already spent part of it, they could only return most, but not all of the money, and Darg had Corse and Ruggles temporarily arrested for grand larceny. Hughes served the minimum sentence for theft in prison (2 years) but was released as free man. The affair caused much controversy, and Hopper and his friends were criticized for helping a thief and made fun of by anti-abolitionists suggesting that they were in fact not interested in freeing slaves but in extorting slaveowners.

A caricature of the Hopper, Ruggles, and Corse opposite of Darg, entitled The Disappointed Abolitionists

In 1840 or 1841 Hopper became treasurer and book agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society and served in these roles until 1845. During this time, he published a column in the Society’s newspaper, The National Anti-Slavery Standard, called “Tales of Oppression, a series of narratives of fugitive slaves whom he had assisted in Philadelphia.

Hopper was the president of the Manhattan Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1845, where his daughter served on the Board of Managers and Howard Sidney Gay as corresponding secretary. With Howard Sidney Gay, he was also involved in another famous slave case, the George Kirk case. George Kirk was a slave hiding on a ship from Savannah to New York City who had been discovered by the captain in 1846 who placed him in chains to return him. When the ship docked in NYC, black stevedores heard him crying for help and reported the incident to Isaac Hopper, who sent an employee of the National Anti-Slavery Standard to Gay’s office with a writ of habeas corpus, which brought the case in front of Judge John W. Edmonds. Judge Edmonds ordered George Kirk to be released. But the Democratic mayor Andrew H. Mickle, at the request of the captain, directed the police to arrest Kirk again, based on an old 1817 law. George Kirk hid in a basement and escape through a rear door into building of the Antislavery Standard. The abolitionists, after consulting with Hopper, carried Kirk inside a box together with boxes of paper from the office in an attempt to transport him to Essex, NY. But they were caught by the police, and Kirk was arrested, brought again in front of Judge Edmonds, who ruled again in his favor. Kirk’s lead defense attorney was John Jay II, who frequently worked with the Hopper, Gay and other abolitionists. To prevent another attempt of returning George Kirk to slavery, John Jay II and Lydia Maria Child, who was a close friend of Hopper and wrote his biography, helped him to escape to Boston.

After retiring from his positions at the AASS, Hopper devoted his time and energy to prison and justice system reform and the assistance of ex-prisoners. He was the driving force behind the Prison Association of New York until his death. His daughter Abigail founded the Women’s Prison Association and an the Isaac T. Hopper Home, an asylum for female ex-prisoners to assist them to re-enter society. He served briefly as president of the New York State Vigilance Committee after Theodore S. Wright died in 1847, but already being 76, this was more of an honorary position. Isaac Tatum died on May 7, 1852.

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