In the opening of his new book, Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, Eric Foner lays out the inspirational story of Frederick Bailey — a young slave in Maryland who teaches himself to read and write; plans to escape slavery by canoe, but gets caught; boards a train wearing seaman's clothes and carrying false papers; and after several unsettling detours — and despite the fact that slave catchers are everywhere — arrives in the free state of New York.
Frederick Bailey eventually changes his last name to Douglass, and the rest is anti-slavery history.
Throughout the book, Foner refers to men and women who defied dangers, and even death, to gain freedom.
"All fugitive slaves faced daunting odds and demonstrated remarkable courage," he writes.
He recounts the stories of Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who shipped himself in a crate from Richmond to Philadelphia; Peter Matthews, a fugitive who traversed 200 miles from Accomac, Va., to Philadelphia and was chased along the way by two men with guns; and Ellen Craft, who disguised herself as a man to escape servitude in Georgia.
Sure, ever-more enlightened lawmakers, anti-slavery forces — led by black and white abolitionists — and fear stirred by slave-instigated rebellions, as noted by Henry Louis Gates and others, pushed a nation toward emancipation.
But did riveting stories of brave freedom-seekers — singly and collectively — also eventually move the national political needle toward abolition?
"I do think fugitive slave narratives did have an effect on Northern opinion," Foner says. "Although, it was more the light they shed on slavery itself than the details of the escapes that had an impact."
He adds: "Although, I could definitely be wrong about this. In my book I discuss how the New York Vigilance Committee from time to time publicized escapes as a fundraising technique."
The heroism and ingenuity of slaves can be found in the 19th century narratives of abolitionists Sydney Howard Gay and William Still. Writing in 1872, Still pointed out that "passengers on the Under Ground Rail Road were determined to have liberty even at the cost of life."
Still relates the daring story of Lear Green, a woman about 18 years old, who escaped from Baltimore slaveholder James Noble by hiding in an old wooden sailor's chest — with only her quilt, a pillow, some clothes, a little food and water. The chest containing Green was delivered to Philadelphia — after a lengthy steamship voyage.
Historians such as Charles L. Blockson and Cathy D. Nelson of the Friends of Freedom Society also put the stories of courageously creative fugitives at the center of their work.
On rare occasions, newspapers of the time did record the actions of fugitive slaves. For example:
"It did take great courage to commit to life in the Great Dismal Swamp," says American University anthropologist Daniel Sayers, who studies the area. "It was in no way an easy place to live — at least initially for those who went in. But these were people ... who had decided that leaving the modern world and societies was the best alternative to day-to-day subjugation."
There must be hundreds of harrowing tales — untold and unreported — of freedom-seeking slaves and the obstacles they faced. But perhaps we just now are beginning to understand the enormous historic tide they were swimming against and the nation-shaping results of their risk-taking and sacrifice.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.