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The Hidden Story Of The Underground Railroad

The Hidden Story of the Underground Railroad
Abolitionist operatives showed cunning and courage as they worked to help fugitive slaves

AFRICANGLOBE – In March 1849, Henry Brown, an enslaved tobacco worker in Richmond, Va., escaped to the North in dramatic fashion. Aided by a white friend, he was put inside a small crate that was shipped to Philadelphia. During the 24-hour journey, he twice almost died when he was turned upside-down. He was received in Philadelphia by the abolitionist James Miller McKim, who tapped on the container and asked, “All right?” Brown answered, “All right, sir.” When the crate was finally opened, Brown emerged, beaming, and launched into a “hymn of praise.” He was sent to New York City and then New Bedford, Mass. Soon famous as Henry “Box” Brown, he went to England, where he became a fixture on the abolitionist lecture circuit.

Brown’s escape is one of many gripping tales told in Eric Foner ’s excellent “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.” Mr. Foner’s book joins a number of previous studies—from William Still’s “The Underground Railroad” (1872) through Larry Gara ’s “The Liberty Line” (1961) to Fergus M. Bordewich ’s “Bound for Canaan” (2005)—that have taken on the challenge of resurrecting the Americans who assisted runaway slaves in their journeys to freedom.

Gateway To Freedom

The challenge is daunting. The Underground Railroad, as its metaphorical name suggests, was a clandestine, illegal network. People involved in it left little firsthand evidence of their work. Mr. Foner, bringing to bear his well-honed research skills and his deep knowledge of slavery and race relations (exemplified in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Lincoln, “The Fiery Trial”), vividly describes the key part that New York City played in the operations of the Underground Railroad from the mid-1830s to the eve of the Civil War.

New York might not seem an obvious subject for a book on antislavery activism. The city had close ties to the South. New York’s cotton, tobacco and sugar merchants maintained friendly relations with slaveholding planters. The dominant political force in New York was the pro-Southern Democratic Party. In 1860, only about a third of the city’s voters went for Lincoln, who won the state because of heavy support in rural districts. Early in the Civil War, New York’s mayor, Fernando Wood, proposed that the city secede from the Union and form an independent state that could maintain “uninterrupted intercourse” with Southern businesses.

Despite this profits-over-morality attitude, New York was a hotbed of antislavery sentiment. Mr. Foner captures the courage and cunning of the city’s secret groups of abolitionist operatives. In particular, he mines a manuscript about fugitive slaves by the newspaper editor Sydney Howard Gay, who worked closely with abolitionists elsewhere. With the help of a free black man named Louis Napoleon, Gay greeted fugitives to the city, found them food and shelter, secured them legal counsel when needed, and forwarded them still further north. His manuscript documents the experiences of more than 200 runaways he assisted.

For context, Mr. Foner reminds us that the Constitution, which tacitly condoned slavery by mandating the forced return of “fugitives from labor,” gave rise to fierce debates. Followers of the Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison viewed the Constitution as a hellish proslavery document. Some Garrisonians were active in New York, where the New York Committee of Vigilance, established in 1835, became the center for the city’s branch of the Underground Railroad. But New York was also the breeding ground for a differently oriented antislavery organization led by the philanthropists Arthur and Lewis Tappan. They espoused political and religious approaches to antislavery activism that the Garrisonians disdained.

Abolitionists on both sides of this internal debate shared a resolve to assist runaway slaves, a resolve that strengthened after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gave federal support to Southerners who came north to take possession of their escaped chattels and return them to slavery. This infamous law met with unrelenting opposition from New York’s Underground Railroad operatives, who in the 1850s aided more than 1,000 fugitives who arrived in the city.

Mr. Foner provocatively discusses the ironies that surrounded fugitive slaves. They found freedom and civil rights in British-controlled Canada, a phenomenon that impelled abolitionists to contrast Canada’s “monarchical liberty” with America’s “republican slavery.” The Fugitive Slave Act was, in Mr. Foner’s words, “the most robust expansion of federal authority over the states, and over individual Americans, of the antebellum era.” Yet the law was endorsed by the South, which otherwise opposed a strong central government. Irony also surrounded antislavery politicians like Lincoln, who, while they loathed the Fugitive Slave Act, championed it in order to preserve the Union: The act, after all, had been part of the Compromise of 1850, which resolved the impasse over slavery by making concessions to both the South and the North. Even after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, fugitive slaves were returned to their masters. A Maryland newspaper noted that more slaves were remanded to their owners under Lincoln than under James Buchanan, Lincoln’s proslavery predecessor.

Efforts to reconstruct the history of the Underground Railroad are inevitably incomplete. Even a well-informed historian like Mr. Foner can only guess at how many slaves escaped north in the three decades just before the Civil War—estimates range from 30,000 to more than 100,000. But he merits high praise for contributing solid information and thoughtful analysis to the history of this shadowy, extensive network.


By: Eric Foner

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