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'Gateway to Freedom' offers new insight into the workings of the Underground Railroad

A historian looks more closely at the network that liberated thousands.

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Henry “Box” Brown’s escape started in Richmond, Va. Saddened by the sale of his wife and children to a slaveholder in a different state, Brown paid to be sealed up in a three-foot-long crate and shipped to Philadelphia by rail and steamboat.

Brown survived the agonizing trip, sang a hymn of praise after being freed from the box, and was assisted by sympathizers in getting first to New York and then to Boston, where he was hidden in the home of an officer of an anti-slave organization. From there, he joined his sister in New Bedford, Mass., then moved to England.

Brown was provoked to escape by the loss of family ties. But along with a profound desire for freedom, most escaped slaves from the pre-Civil War South were motivated by physical abuse. Samuel Hill, the slave of a farmer who “worked him hard, clothed him poorly, and beat him,” was one such escapee, but his story is typical of many.

With celebrated firmness, American patriots demanded “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But the task of securing freedom for all Americans was far from finished when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.

Even before the American Revolution, African slaves took their lives in their hands and made perilous journeys. These quests – the routes they took, the places they hid along the way, the people who helped them – came to be known as the Underground Railroad. But even after former slaves succeeded in making their way north of the Mason-Dixon line, there was still the danger that they could be captured and returned to slavery, so many rode the Railroad on to Canada.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eric Foner shows in his new book, Gateway to Freedom, this Railroad had many branches. And though Foner focuses his scholarly attention on the route through New York City, his text reveals the larger story of how thousands of slaves, mostly from the northern part of the southern United States, were helped to win their freedom.

Foner subtitles his book “The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.” Indeed, this account digs deep, and unearths important and – perhaps for many readers – unexpected aspects of the famed Underground Railroad.

Much of the book concentrates not on the escapes themselves, but on the groups that enabled these escapes. Foner notes that in 1838 the American Anti-Slavery Society urged abolitionists “to appoint committees of vigilance, whose duty it shall be to assist fugitives from slavery.” By 1842, the National Anti-Slavery Standard (a publication of the AASS) reported the existence of such organizations “in most of our cities and large towns.”

But there was infighting among anti-slavery groups. “The task of assisting fugitive slaves, however, would remain a frequent point of cooperation among persons otherwise loath to work with one another,” Foner says.

Foner, a distinguished historian and professor at Columbia University, has written a number of books on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. In 2011 he won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Fiery Trial,” a densely detailed but revelatory look at Abraham Lincoln’s evolving ideas as to how to heal the injustice of slavery.

In choosing New York as his focal point for this book, Foner sets the stage for revealing “hidden history.” He points out that “New York City’s prosperity ... depended on its relations with the slave South.... New York merchants dominated the transatlantic trade in [cotton].”

City officials, sympathetic to efforts to capture slaves and emboldened by public sentiment, would expedite arrests and legal procedures, making the job of defenders much more difficult. Meanwhile, “a rapidly growing free black community ready to take to the streets to try to protect fugitive slaves would make New York a key battleground in the national struggle over slavery.”

It isn’t until later in his book that Foner shifts his emphasis to the stories of slaves who rode the Railroad, and the dedicated individuals – many from Quaker churches – who helped enable these escapes. In this he is blessed by the careful records of Sydney Howard Gay, editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, who recorded the experiences of more than 200 escaped slaves. 

This book is quite an accomplishment. As with “The Fiery Trial,” Foner requires readers to embrace the details of history – in this case, the intricate back story of anti-slavery groups, which sometimes makes for difficult reading. That said, much of the rest of this narrative is dramatic and compelling and certainly will provide readers with a deep understanding of the workings of the Underground Railroad.
David Hugh Smith is a writer from Brookline, Mass.

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