Dr. Thomas Bayne (1885)
William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 254-259.
One of the more memorable stories of the Underground Railroad concern a black dentist named Sam Nixon who later became known as Dr. Thomas Bayne (c.1824-1888). Dr. Bayne began his life as a slave named Sam in North Carolina who escaped, but was eventually captured and purchased by local dentist in Norfolk, Virginia. The dentist, impressed by Sam’s intelligence, trained him in the profession. Sam Nixon, who was literate and obviously gifted, later told William Still that his owner had not only taught him about the practice of dentistry, but also allowed him to keep the firm’s books and make house-calls all over the town. This independence allowed Nixon (Bayne) to work covertly as an agent for the Underground Railroad, helping fugitives find schooner captains who would carry them to Philadelphia. Eventually, Nixon became fearful that his activities might be discovered so he fled northward himself. Arriving in New Jersey, he stayed with a Quaker woman named Abigail Goodwin who expressed her shock (and skepticism) about his self-described accomplishments in a letter to Still (excerpted below). Although she called Nixon a “smart young man,” Goodwin wrote that he appeared to be a “great brag” who claimed “he was a dentist for ten years” -a fact which she found astonishing. She concluded, “I don’t feel much confidence in him.” Nixon then settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts where he changed his name to Thomas Bayne and became a prominent local dentist. Bayne became so prominent that he was elected to the city council on the eve of the Civil War. During Reconstruction, he returned to Norfolk and became a leader in the state Republican Party. However, Bayne soon became a target of local white political rage and was eventually driven out of politics. Just before the end of his life, suffering either from exhaustion or senility, Bayne was admitted to the Central State Lunatic Asylum in Petersburg. Virginia historian John T. Kneebone has identified him as one of the most “intriguing” stories in Virginia history.
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"SAM" NIXON ALIAS DR. THOMAS BAYNE.
THE ESCAPE OF A DENTIST ON THE U. G. R. R.-HE IS TAKEN FOR AN IMPOSTOR- ELECTED A MEMBER OF CITY COUNCIL IN NEW BEDFORD-STUDYING MEDICINE, ETC.
But few could be found among the Underground Rail Road passengers who had a stronger repugnance to the unrequited labor system, or the recognized terms of “master and slave,” than Dr. Thomas Bayne. Nor were many to be found who were more fearless and independent in uttering their sentiments. His place of bondage was in the city of Norfolk, Va., where he was held to service by Dr. C. F. Martin, a dentist of some celebrity. While with Dr. Martin, “Sam” learned dentistry in all its branches, and was often required by his master, the doctor, to fulfil professional engagements, both at home and at a distance, when it did not suit his pleasure or convenience to appear in person. In the mechanical department, especially, “Sam” was called upon to execute the most difficult tasks. This was not the testimony of “Sam” alone; various individuals who were with him in Norfolk, but had moved to Philadelphia, and were living there at the time of his arrival, being invited to see this distinguished professional piece of property, gave evidence which fully corroborated his. The master’s profess-ional practice, according to “Sam’s” calculation, was worth $3,000 per annum. Full $1,000 of this amount in the opinion of “Sam” was the result of his own fettered hands. Not only was “Sam” serviceable to the doctor in the mechanical and practical branches of his profession, but as a sort of ready reckoner and an apt penman, he was obviously considered by the doctor, a valuable “article.” He would frequently have “Sam” at his books instead of a book-keeper. Of course, “Sam” had never received, from Dr. M., an hour’s schooling in his life, but having perceptive faculties naturally very large, combined with much self-esteem, he could hardly help learning readily. Had his master’s design to keep him in ignorance been ever so great, he would have found it a labor beyond his power. But is no reason to suppose that Dr. Martin was opposed to Sam’s learning to read and write. We are pleased to note that no charges of ill-treatment are found recorded against Dr. M. in the narrative of “Sam.”
True, it appears that he had been sold several times in his younger days, and had consequently been made to feel keenly, the smarts of Slavery, but nothing of this kind was charged against Dr. M., so that he may be set down as a pretty fair man, for aught that is known to the contrary, with the exception of depriving “Sam” of the just reward of his labor, which, ac-cording to St. James, is pronounced a “fraud.” The doctor did not keep “Sam” so closely confined to dentistry and book-keeping that he had no time to attend occasionally to outside duties. It appears that he was quite active and successful as an Underground Rail Road agent, and rendered important aid in various directions. Indeed, Sam had good reason to suspect that the slave-holders were watching him, and that if he remained, he would most likely find himself in “hot water up to his eyes.” Wisdom, dictated that he should “pull up stakes” and depart while the way was open. He knew the captains who were then in the habit of taking similar passengers, but he had some fears that they might not be able to pursue the business much longer. In contemplating the change which he was about to make, “Sam” felt it necessary to keep his movements strictly private. Not even was he at liberty to break his mind to his wife and child, fearing that it would do them no good, and might prove his utter failure. His wife’s name was Edna and his daughter was called Elizabeth; both were slaves and owned by E. P. Tabb, Esq., a hardware merchant of Norfolk.
No mention is made on the books, of ill-treatment, in connection with his wife’s servitude; it may therefore be inferred, that her situation was not remarkably hard. It must not be supposed that “Sam” was not truly attached to his wife. He gave abundant proof of true matrimonial devotion, notwithstanding the secrecy of his arrangements for flight. Being naturally hopeful, he concluded that he could better succeed in securing his wife after obtaining freedom himself, than in undertaking the beforehand.
The captain had two or three other Underground Rail Road male passengers to bring with him, besides “Sam,” for whom, arrangements had been previously made-no more could be brought that trip. At the appointed time, the passengers were at the disposal of the captain of the schooner which was to bring them oat of Slavery into freedom. Fully aware of the dangerous consequences should he be detected, the captain, faithful to his promise, secreted them in the usual manner, and set sail northward. Instead of landing his passengers in Philadelphia, as was his intention, for some reason or other (the schooner may have been disabled), he landed them on the New Jersey coast, not a great distance from Cape Island. He directed them how to reach Philadelphia. Sam knew of friends in the city, and straightway used his ready pen to make known the distress of himself and partners in tribulation. In making their way in the direction of their des-tined haven, they reached Salem, New Jersey, where they were discovered to be strangers and fugitives, and were directed to Abigail Goodwin, a Quaker lady, an abolitionist, long noted for her devotion to the cause of freedom, and one of the most liberal and faithful friends of the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia.
This friend’s opportunities of witnessing fresh arrivals had been rare, and perhaps she had never before come in contact with a “chattel” so smart as “Sam.” Consequently she was much embarrassed when she heard his story, especially when he talked of his experience as a “Dentist.” She was inclined to suspect that he was a “shrewd impostor” that needed “watching” instead of aiding. But her humanity forbade a hasty decision on this point. She was soon persuaded to render him some assistance, notwithstanding her apprehensions. While tarrying a day or two in Salem, “Sam’s” letter was received in Philadelphia. Friend Goodwin was written to in the meantime, by a member of the Committee, directly with a view of making inquires concerning the stray fugitives, and at the same time to inform her as to how they happened to be coming in the direction found by her. While the mind of the friend was much relieved by the letter she received, she was still in some doubt, as will be seen by the appended extract from a letter on the subject:
In due time Samuel and his companions reached Philadelphia, where a cordial welcome awaited them. The confusion and difficulties into which they had fallen, by having to travel an indirect route, were folly explained, and to the hearty merriment of the Committee and strangers, the dilemma of their good Quaker friend Goodwin at Salem was alluded to. After a sojourn of a day or two in Philadelphia, Samuel and his companions left for New Bedford. Canada was named to them as the safest place for all Refugees; but it was in vain to attempt to convince “Sam” that Canada or any other place on this Continent, was quite equal to New Bedford. His heart was there, and there he was resolved to go-and there he did go too, bearing with him his ispatch mind, determined, if possible, to work his way up to an honorable position at his old trade, Dentistry, and that too for his own benefit. Aided by the Committee, the journey was made safely to the desired haven, where many old friends from Norfolk were found. Here our hero was known by the name of Dr. Thomas Bayne-he was no longer “Sam.” In a short time the Dr. commenced his profession in an humble way, while, at the same time, he deeply interested himself in his own improvement, as well as the improvement of others, especially those who had escaped from Slavery as he himself had. Then, too, as colored men were voters and, there-fore, eligible to office in New Bedford, the Doctor’s naturally ambitious and intelligent turn of mind led him to take an interest in politics, and be-fore he was a citizen of New Bedford four years, he was duly elected a member of the City Council. He was also an outspoken advocate of the cause of temperance, and was likewise a ready speaker at Anti-slavery meetings held by his race. Some idea of his abilities, and the interest he took in the Underground Rail Road, education, etc., may be gathered from the appended letters:
The Doctor, feeling his educational deficiency in the enlightened city of New Bedford, did just what every uncultivated man should, devoted himself assiduously to study, and even applied himself to abstruse and hard subjects, medicine, etc., as the following letters will show;
Thus the doctor continued to labor and improve his mind until the war removed the hideous institution of Slavery from the nation; but as soon as the way opened for his return to his old home, New Bedford no longer had sufficient attractions to retain him. With all her faults he conceived that “Old Virginia” offered decided inducements for his return. Accordingly he went directly to Norfolk, whence he escaped. Of course every thing was in the utmost confusion and disorder when he returned, save where the military held sway. So as soon as the time drew near for reorganizing, elections, &c., the doctor was found to be an aspirant for a seat in Congress, and in “running” for it, was found to be a very difficult candidate to beat. Indeed in the first reports of the election his name was amongst the elected; but subsequent counts proved him to be among the defeated by only a very slight majority.
At the time of the doctor’s escape, in 1855, he was thirty-one years of age, a man of medium size, and about as purely colored, as could readily be found, with a full share of self-esteem and pluck.
Citation for this page
"Dr. Thomas Bayne (1885)," Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008, http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/ugrr/recollection_bayne.html.