IN a little cabin in Maryland, lived a colored man, Levin Smith, with his wife and four black, sparkling-eyed little children. All summer Levin worked in the cornfield, and in winter sawed wood for the "big house," while his wife worked at the washtubs. They all loved each other very much and would have been very happy and contented except for something that always hung over them, filling their hearts with dread. Levin Smith was an "owned" man, though his wife was a "free" woman. This was sixty years before slavery was ended in the United States by Lincoln's Proclamation declaring that all the slaves were free. Levin had a master, who, though he was not at all unkind and had allowed Levin to marry a free woman and live comfortably in his little cabin, still had the power to take him away from his family and sell him as we would sell a horse or cow, to whomsoever he pleased. It was this continual fear of being torn away and shipped he knew not where, that darkened Levin's life, and even took the smile from the faces of his little children when a neighbor whispered to the mother tales of cruelty in the far South.
At last, and suddenly, the very worst that they had feared came to pass. Levin's master, needing more money, sold him with several other slaves to a speculator who made a business of buying men cheap and shipping them to the South where they brought a big price. Levin Smith was first sent to a farm in Delaware where the slaves were worked until a good market was found for them. He was bitterly unhappy, as were most of the black men with whom he toiled. Many had been there longer than he, and when their overseer was not near, he frequently heard muttered plans for escape. One name he heard over and over again, Mr. Hopper in Philadelphia, "if we could get to Mr. Hopper, he would help us." But the plans seldom went any further, for it was difficult to escape from the farm without money or friends to help, and the slave who ran away and was caught was severely punished.
The time came when Levin could bear the uncertainty and misery no longer. Feeling that the only person he could trust to help him was an old man who brought mail from a distant post-office, Levin managed to meet the man alone and poured out his heart to him. The postman knew exactly what to do. He lent Levin money, directed him to a freight-station where he could hide himself at night in a car going north, promised to communicate with his family, advising them to go to Philadelphia, and finally scribbled a note which he handed to Levin, saying, "I can only help you to get away from here, but this note is to the best friend the colored people ever had, Isaac T. Hopper, and he will tell you what to do when you get to Philadelphia."
Levin reached Philadelphia in safety, and after some difficulty found his wife and children, who had already taken rooms and who were waiting for him there. As the postman directed, he had gone straight to Isaac T. Hopper, and from the moment the kindly piercing eyes of Friend Hopper met his, Levin knew that here was a man whom he could trust above all others. He found on every side the colored people spoke of him with reverence, and he heard story after story of Mr. Hopper's helping slaves to escape, pleading in the courts for justice for them, giving freely of his wisdom, time and money to set their souls and bodies free, for no other reason apparently than that he had confidence in their worth.
For one month Levin Smith and his family lived and worked together in Philadelphia. They knew that the news of his whereabouts might have reached his master and at any moment he might he seized and carried off. So when late one evening, after they were in bed, they heard their door broken into without ceremony and clattering footsteps on the stairs, they knew what had happened. Levin had only time to whisper to his wife, "Send to Mr. Hopper, quick," before his hands were bound and he was led away.
Isaac T. Hopper was sleeping soundly on his great feather-bed, when a violent knocking rose from the door on the street below his open window. He knew well what it meant, and in an instant he was at the window, pulling on his breeches, as he peered out. Below crouched two dark figures.
"What's wanted?" he whispered, and the black faces were lifted instantly.
"Mr. Hopper, sah, come quick! Dey's taken Levin Smith down toward de rivah."
A minute later Isaac T. Hopper was in the street dressed in the old rough coat and hat he wore to fires. First to Levin's home, where the wailing children and terror-stricken wife were surrounded by excited colored people; then on down to the river, they ran. Several men had followed Levin's captors at a distance and were able to tell Isaac T. Hopper that a sloop lay at the foot of the street, that its captain had been drinking heavily at the tavern and was heard cursing because he had forgotten to load certain important eases of goods, and that Levin Smith had been led to this tavern, which stood across the street from the wharf. A little crowd of men and boys hung around the door of the tavern. Straight through these Issac T. Hopper elbowed his way. A large man with a heavy red nose stopped him in the doorway. "A colored man was seen to enter your house by force, will you tell me his whereabouts?" Hopper demanded briskly.
"No, I will not. It's none of your business," grumbled the red-nosed man.
A boy's voice shrilled up from the crowd, "Upstairs they took him, Mr. Hopper, to the back room." Before the landlord could brace himself in the doorway, a mighty shove set him to one side and a determined figure was past him and up the dimly lighted stairs. The six men who were lounging around the back bedroom came to with a terrific start as Isaac T. Hopper, with flashing eyes, whirled into their midst. Levin Smith lay across the bed with his hands bound to his sides and his mouth gagged. At his side Isaac turned and with a face that made those hard slave-hunters shrink, cried, "What are you going to do with this man?" For a breathless instant there was silence broken by a low moan from Levin. Then as at a signal the six white men seized Isaac T. Hopper, dragged him struggling to the window and pitched him out, head first, into the night. From below came a crash, and the sound of empty barrels overturned and rolling. With a muffled cry and a convulsive shudder Levin staggered to his feet, and the men rushed to seize and hold him. Meanwhile Isaac T. Hopper lay gasping for breath among the empty casks, but the sounds of struggle from the open windows above roused him to furious action. He got to his feet; his own body seemed to have ceased to exist, his sensations were only of rage and pity. Somehow he reached the front of the house and upstairs, only to find the room door locked. Down again he crawled and out while the crowd in the street hardly moved. His mind was clear he remembered a shed below the window to the right of the one from which he had been thrown. Like a cat he clambered up the back fence, on to the shed, in the window to a room which luckily opened by an unlocked door, into the room where Levin Smith still struggled with his captors. For the second time Isaac T. Hopper dashed among the astonished men. Now they started back from the bed as though a ghost had suddenly arisen under their noses. "Let's see you get me again," cried Hopper; then to Levin, "Follow me." Out came his penknife, the cords fell in pieces and the two men were out of the room and into the street.
Levin was stiff and sore, but he managed to slip the gag down from his mouth and run beside his rescuer. Although they were past the crowd and had covered a half a block before anyone recovered his wits sufficiently to follow, they could hear the cries of "Stop thief" behind, and knew that the mob was coming. Isaac T. Hopper took Levin's arm. "Three blocks further and we're in the magistrate's office; you're safe then, boy," he panted.
The justice of the peace had been working late that night and was just putting away his papers when he heard a great din outside, and two men, one black, the other white, and both in rags, burst into the room. It was difficult to startle the justice. With a keen look at the white man, he exclaimed wildly, "Good Heavens, Mr. Hopper, what brings you here at this time of night in such trim and with a rabble at your heels?" As he spoke he calmly barred the street door and drew the blinds across the windows. After he had heard the story in brief from Isaac T. Hopper, he laughed, "They would not have treated you so roughly if they had known who you were," he remarked. The magistrate and Isaac T. Hopper, who understood all the complicated slave laws of the state, explained to Levin that he had become legally free, because of his residence for over six months in Delaware.
Thus protected by the law, Levin Smith returned to his family and was not disturbed again. Isaac T. Hopper, in his fall from the tavern window, had been hurt in the back and never entirely recovered from the effects. But this he considered of little importance; he had been able to help another colored friend to win and hold his freedom.