Our notion of the Underground Railroad, the network that helped spirit fugitive slaves to freedom, has long been a compound of myth and history. The legend, preserved in quilts and spirituals, conjures up Harriet Tubman, the North Star, and dangerous solitary treks under cover of darkness.
The facts have been harder to pin down. For one thing, the activities involved were mostly illegal and conducted in secret. In addition, both North and South turned the existence of fugitives, and of the railroad, to propaganda uses, distorting statistics to support sectional politics.
But documentation does survive. William Still, a black Underground Railroad “conductor” in Pennsylvania, detailed his activities in an indispensable 1872 book based on his diaries. In “Gateway to Freedom,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner mines an archival source of comparable importance: the New York newspaper editor Sydney Howard Gay’s “Record of Fugitives.”
Covering 1855 and 1856, it describes more than 200 escapes that Gay and his black colleagues facilitated in defiance of the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That law, tougher than its 1793 predecessor, made the return of escaped slaves a federal responsibility, curtailed their legal rights, and required individuals to assist in their capture.
Along with Gay’s notes, his “Record” comprises the centerpiece, and perhaps the raison d’être, of Foner’s meticulous, worthy, but often dry study. His subtitle notwithstanding, Foner hasn’t attempted a sweeping history of the Underground Railroad. His focus is on its operation in New York, a Northern city whose mercantile ties to the South made it unusually sympathetic to slavery.
Nevertheless, New York was “a crucial way station” along what Foner calls “the metropolitan corridor” — the route escaping slaves took from the upper South to Pennsylvania and points north, often all the way to Canada. No city functioned in a political vacuum, so leaders such as Still, Boston’s fiery abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, and the fugitive turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass inevitably figure in the story.
Foner starts with a measured overview of the historiography. “The picture that emerges from recent studies,” he writes, “is not of the highly organized system with tunnels, codes, and clearly defined routes and stations of popular lore, but of an interlocking series of local networks, each of whose fortunes rose and fell over time, but which together helped a substantial number of fugitives reach safety in the free states and Canada.” He notes that these networks constituted “a rare instance in antebellum America of interracial cooperation.”
The problem of fugitives, he writes, highlighted conflicts between federal and state authority, offering an ironic instance of the South favoring federal power over states’ rights. The fugitives’ growing numbers also gave the lie to the myth of the benevolent master and contented slave, and passage of the Fugitive Slave Act demonstrated how slave culture could affect civil rights in the North.
Foner summarizes both the history of slavery in New York and the evolution of its abolitionist movement. Especially important, he writes, was the largely black New York Vigilance Committee, which, beginning in 1835, pursued legal efforts to help fugitives and deter kidnappings, as well as covert activities to aid escapes.
The abolitionist movement, both nationally and in New York, was fractious and divided, and Foner’s discussion gets deep into the weeds of the infighting. Of more general interest is his analysis of how and why fugitives made their way North. Often, Foner says, escapes were precipitated by particularly harsh treatment, including physical abuse, as well as the threat of impending sale.
Gay’s “Record of Fugitives” pays tribute to Tubman, whose brave forays into the slave states quickly became the stuff of legend. But it also documents a range of other escapes, mostly from Maryland and Virginia. Many fugitives traveled in groups and used boats, trains, horses, or carriages. The solitary, five-week trek of William Brown in the winter of 1855 was unusually arduous: “His clothes sometimes froze to him,” Gay wrote, “and he would lie all day in the sun to thaw and dry them.”
After enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act, Northern abolitionists took pride in their civil disobedience, helping to spur the Civil War. The war created yet more fugitives, who, Foner writes, would help “propel the nation down the road to emancipation.”
On a still contentious subject, “Gateway to Freedom” stakes out a cogent middle ground. With revisionist historians, Foner exalts the initiative of slaves who sought their own freedom. But he also celebrates the free men and women, both white and black, who became their indispensable allies.
Julia M. Klein is cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.