Hidden History: William Thomas


(WBRE/WYOU-TV) His name is William Thomas   And he lived and worked in Wilkes-Barre.

   As an escaped slave– he found his way to Luzerne County– and as our Mark Hiller reports-  few here have even heard the name.  Here’s why.

Scrolling through a computer website, Historian Bill Kashatus points out some notable anti-slavery figures.

Kashatus says, “William Still who was the free black director of the entire eastern line of the Underground Railroad.”

But one image that’s impossible to find is that of another William whose last name was Thomas.

“William Thomas, an escaped slave from Fauquier County, Virginia is the reason for the 1853 Wilkes-Barre fugitive slave case.” Note Kashatus.

While Thomas was on the run from his slave owner, he took refuge in Wilkes-Barre. He found work clearing tables at what was then Phoenix Hotel at River and Market Streets.

Kashatus says, “Really is a pretty majestic site for the 19th century.”

On September 3, 1853, Thomas was forced to fight for his freedom while on the job.

Kashatus says, “Thomas would have come out of this door, down the steps.” Hiller asks, “Right here?” Kashatus says, “Right here.”  

He was confronted by U.S. Marshalls acting as slave catchers who tried to return him to captivity. They severely beat Thomas who fought back and broke free. 

Bill Lewis of the PA Historical and Museum Commission explains “So he just basically ran down.”

Thomas jumped into the Susquehanna River to elude his would-be captors. 

Lewis says, “He may have gone as far north as Plains.”   

Bill Lewis with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission says if captured, Thomas would likely have faced a much harsher experience during a second go-around as a slave.

“Some of his colleagues who stood here on the river said, ‘Drown yourself Bill or save yourself. Don’t go let them make you a slave again” Said Lewis

An angry crowd surrounded the slave catchers who quickly realized they wouldn’t catch Thomas this day.

“They finally had to get out of town. They headed south. He headed north” Noted Lewis.

Prominent Wilkes-Barre abolitionist William Gildersleeve rescued Thomas who collapsed in a cornfield. Gildersleeve helped Thomas on his path to freedom to live out the rest of his days in Canada.

Thomas is referenced in a Historical Marker dedicated to Gildersleeve here along Ross Street in Wilkes-Barre. It is the only Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Marker in Wilkes-Barre that acknowledges the city’s significant role in the Underground Railroad.

But to this day, there is no marker in Wilkes-Barre specifically dedicated to Thomas – or any other African American or institution that played a role in our abolitionist history.  Kashatus, who wrote an article about Thomas’ escape called “In Immortal Splendour”, believes Thomas would be a worthy recipient of a historical marker.

“So, Thomas of himself as an escaped slave was really the catalyst for a federal court case that pitted state sovereignty against federal law.”

The States lost that Supreme Court fight which led to a backlash that spilled onto Civil War battlefields and ultimately gave nearly four million slaves their freedom. So why doesn’t Thomas have a historical marker in his honor? In short, he probably wasn’t nominated.

“Those nominations come from the public, from organizations, from individuals and they also have to fund the marker” Added Lewis.

A marker costs $2,000 which Lewis says to honor Thomas would be well worth the price.

“It would be just a terrific school project, a college project or a history project.” Stressed Lewis.

And immortalize a man who made history fighting for we all enjoy today: freedom.  

More Information on the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and how to submit a nomination for a state marker.  LINK : https://www.phmc.pa.gov/Pages/default.aspx

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