African-American Transportation History: Leonard A. Grimes, Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Conductor

Leonard A. Grimes (1815-1873) was an African-American abolitionist who, as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, used his transportation enterprise in the Washington, D.C., area to deliver others from slavery to freedom.

Leonard A. Grimes plaque at George Washington University.

Grimes grew up free in Leesburg, Virginia, but he still managed to witness the misery of slavery in his native South. He resolved to do what he could to fight the enslavement of others. Grimes’ opportunity to do so came about during the mid-1830s when he launched a profitable horse-driven coach business in Washington that transported passengers both within the city and throughout much of its surrounding region. Working for the Underground Railroad, Grimes regularly used this coach service to pick up escaped slaves in Virginia and bring them to Washington so that they could leave their lives of servitude behind.

Grimes performed these rescue missions at significant personal risk. After he was seen transporting one family of slaves — a mother and her six children —  out of Virginia in 1839, Grimes was tracked down and arrested. Grimes subsequently spent time at hard labor in a prison in Richmond before being released and allowed to return to Washington. In 1846, Grimes moved to Massachusetts and continued his fight against slavery and for civil rights there.

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