Feb 20, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Uncovering the "Harriet Tubman" of the Underground Railroad to Mexico

Photo illustration of a Black person's hand reaching towards silhouettes of hands, across a map of the Rio Grande and a ledger with the name "Silvia" highlighted.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: The University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley Digital Library

Descendants of Silvia Hector Webber, who played a role in helping enslaved people escape through Texas to the underground railroad into Mexico, are working to resurrect her story.

Why it matters: Texas is one of many states that have passed laws limiting discussions about slavery in schools, and Webber's descendants say teaching her story is the best way to fight attempts to erase history.

Driving the news: Descendants announced Saturday that they have found new records showing Silvia Webber was 8 years old when she was sold along with her mother, Sarah, from an area near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

  • Before the announcement at the Briscoe Center for American History, Webber had been a mysterious but influential figure in the often-overlooked underground railroad to Mexico.
  • She was the first free Black woman in present-day Austin, Texas.

Details: Webber's descendants recently created a nonprofit to preserve the history of a woman known in the region as "Aunt Puss."

  • The group is also raising money to maintain a Webber cemetery in South Texas and learn more about a woman who risked her life to help others seek freedom.
  • "We're not going to stay quiet, and we're going to ensure that the story, and this history and others like this, get out there," Omar "O.J." Treviño, a descendant of Webber, tells Axios.
Omar "O.J." Treviño, a descendant of Webber, stands in front of her freedom documents at the Briscoe Center for American History in Austin, Texas.
Omar "O.J." Treviño, a descendant of Webber, stands in front of her freedom documents at the Briscoe Center for American History in Austin, Texas. Photo: Courtesy of the Webber Family Preservation Project

Zoom in: Webber was the wife of John Webber, a white man who purchased her freedom before they settled in Webberville, Texas, which is now part of Austin.

  • The couple operated a ranch and built a ferry landing on their property to help slavery escapees move along the Colorado River toward Mexico, according to Ohio State history professor María Esther Hammack.
  • The couple had 11 children and used their ranch as a stop in the underground railroad to Mexico until racial discrimination forced them to move to South Texas, where they continued their clandestine mission, Hammack tells Axios Latino.

Background: The underground railroad to Mexico was a loosely organized path allowing enslaved Black people in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Alabama to escape bondage by fleeing south.

  • Oral histories, archives of slave escape ads, and narratives of formerly enslaved people show that fleeing to Mexico was a possibility leading up to the U.S. Civil War.
  • Mexico abolished slavery in the 1830s, and escapees changed their names and started new lives there.
  • Between 4,000 to 10,000 enslaved Black people may have taken the trek south.

Zoom out: Much of Webber's accomplishments would have remained unknown had it not been for Hammack, who found Webber's freedom papers and has been researching the topic for years.

  • Hammack said she found Webber after searching for the "Harriet Tubman" of the Underground Railroad to Mexico.
  • "If I hadn't considered the importance of Harriet Tubman and her significance in the histories of freedom and abolition in the U.S., I perhaps never would have found Silvia."
  • Hammack is writing a book on the Underground Railroad to Mexico, which will include Webber's story.

Between the lines: Promoting Webber's story today feels like a new clandestine act since Texas has passed laws limiting Black history, says Leslie Alexis Dutcher-Trevino, O.J.'s wife and president of the Webber Family Preservation Project,

  • "Texas is kind of facing a reckoning with its history, especially since the whole reason for the Texas independence was based on the institution of slavery."

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