Gateway To Freedom

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

Eric Foner (©2015, W. W. Norton & Company)

Gateway To Freedom Book CoverHistorian Eric Foner has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Lincoln Prize for his distinguished works on the Civil War period of American history. As the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, he has consistently brought little known histories to light and with Gateway to Freedom, he does so again.

Integrating fresh evidence–including a secretly kept accounting of escapees created by Sydney Howard Gay, one of the key figures in the New York City network of organizers and activists who were helping escaped slaves to freedom–Foner carefully exposes the myths about the Underground Railroad and elevates it from folklore to history. Americans, who are more interested in our actual history than the mythology that generally obscures it, will enjoy this work.

Foner summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of previous histories of the Underground Railroad in his introduction and then points out that “the Underground Railroad represents a moment in our history when black and white Americans worked together in a just cause.”

“The picture that emerges from recent studies 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. Vigilance committees thrived and then fell into abeyance, only to be reconstituted after a few years. The ‘underground railroad’ should be understood not as a single entity, but as an umbrella term for local groups that employed numerous methods to assist fugitives, some public and entirely legal, some flagrant violations of the law.”                                                         –Introduction, p. 15

Underground Railroad EngravingFoner notes that escaping from border states was far easier than from the cotton kingdom of the lower South. Fugitives in the lower South tended to escape to Native American communities, or into remote and inaccessible areas (like the isolated fugitive encampments documented in the Great Dismal Swamp of southern Virginia), or head to cities like New Orleans and Mobile, where they hoped to lose themselves in the free black population.

“The Canadian census of 1861 found that 80 percent of southern-born Blacks in Canada, many of them fugitive slaves and their children, had been born in only three states–Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky.”                                                                            –Introduction, p. 16

Maryland was a source for many of the fugitive slaves described in the book. Foner notes that Baltimore was known as

“the ‘black capital’ of the Upper South, a haven for fugitives from the countryside and a place where skilled slaves like Douglass (Frederick Douglass) could not only work on their own and live apart from their owners, but also find free blacks willing to assist their quest for freedom. In most parts of Maryland, free blacks outnumbered slaves, and blacks traveling on their own were a common sight, making escape easier.”                                     –Introduction, p. 16

The risks involved in helping fugitive slaves were considerable to all participants in the lose network known to us as the Underground Railroad. And the territorial integrity of free states was no guarantee of protection for either fugitive slaves or those who aided them. Imprisonment, heavy fines, being sued for damages by slave owners, and in one case, a black sailor from New York was heavily fined in a Georgia court for aiding a runaway and when he couldn’t pay the fine, William Brodie was sold into slavery (p. 21).

Slavery was not only a problem at home. England had abolished slavery, famously in the Somerset case before Lord Mansfield and the King’s Court in 1772. America’s revolutionary war was fought and could only have been won with the participation of Southern slave owners who were struggling to protect their ‘peculiar institution’ from the newly decided import of English common law (Lord Mansfield ruled that a man could not breathe English air and be a slave, freeing 12,000 slaves in England overnight.)

Along with England and her territories in Canada, Mexico (which abolished slavery in the 1820s) also refused to extradite fugitive slaves from the United States.

Free states north of the Ohio River line of demarcation sanctioned in the compromises over slavery that led to the establishment of the Constitution were also insisting on the territoriality of freedom, holding positions on fugitives similar to Mansfield’s position in England.

This led to “the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required all citizens to assist in the capture of fugitives and overrode local laws and procedures that impeded their return” (p. 25). The law strongly reinforced the ‘extraterritoriality” of state slave laws, extending them northward.

“The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 embodied the most robust expansion of federal authority over the states, and over individual Americans, of the antebellum era. It could hardly have been designed to arouse greater opposition in the North. It overrode numerous state and local laws and legal procedures and ‘commanded’ individual citizens to assist, when called upon, in rendition” (of fugitive slaves). “It was retroactive, applying to all slaves who had run away in the past, including those who had been law-abiding residents of the free states for many years. It did nothing to protect free blacks from kidnapping.” (p. 125)
“On September 18, 1850 two days after its final approval by Congress, President Fillmore affixed his signature to the Fugitive Slave Bill. Compared with the brief measure of 1793, the statute was long, complicated and draconian. It created a new category of federal official, that of U.S. Commissioner, appointed by a federal judge and authorized to hear the case of an accused fugitive and to issue a certificate of removal, a document that could not be challenged in any court. The fugitive could neither claim a writ of habeus corpus nor testify at the hearing, whose sole purpose was to establish his or her identity.

“For this, a document from the owner’s state with a physical description of the accused would constitute ‘conclusive’ proof. The commissioner would receive a fee of five dollars if he decided against the owner and ten dollars if he issued a certificate of removal, on the grounds that the latter involved more paperwork…The act included severe civil and criminal penalties for anyone who harbored fugitive slaves or interfered with their capture, as well as for marshals and deputies who failed to carry out a commissioner’s order or from whom a fugitive escaped. No actuion by a state or local judge and no local law could interfere with the process norther personal liberty laws were specifically mentioned in the act as examples of illegitimate ‘molestation’ of the slaveowner. To forestall resistance, the federal government at its own expense could deliver the fugitive to his or her owner.” (p.124-5)

The law galvanized Northern resistance and ignited the cry for state’s rights in the North for exactly the opposite reason it was and to some extent remains a rallying cry in the South. Northerners were to be forced against their laws and their will to re-enslave people they esteemed to be free; while the Southern cry of state’s rights was entirely predicated on their determined assertions that human beings were property and could be owned, stolen, and repossessed regardless of where in the world they were found.

Chronically short of funds for the transportation, lodging, feeding, legal representation, and protection of escaped slaves, those involved in the Vigilance and Anti-Slavery Committees often went to great lengths to procure funds from sympathetic businessmen and private individuals.

With stunning irony, some women’s groups actually staged mock slave auctions to raise funds for the protection and transportation of fugitive slaves out of the reach of their owners, freelance kidnapping rings, and slave hunters that roamed northern cities.

Foner’s book fairly sparkles with personal anecdotes and intimate stories.

“…Syracuse was known as the Canada of the United States because of its pervasive antislavery atmosphere…In Jermain W. Loguen, Syracuse boasted on of the most effective underground railroad operatives in the entire North. Born a slave on a small plantation in Tennessee in 1813, Loguen had escaped in 1834. His owner’s family knew how to hold a grudge. Twenty-six years later, in 1860, the wife, who still held Loguen’s mother as a slave, wrote to him asking for $1,000 for the horse he took while escaping, in which case she would relinquish all claim to him. Loguen replied with indignation: “You say, ‘you know we raised you as we did our own children.’ Woman, did you raise your own children for the market? Did you raise them for the whipping post?…I meet the proposition with unutterable scorn and contempt.” (p. 179)

The other act that prepared the ground for a bloody civil war to end slavery was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1834, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and “opened most of the Louisiana Purchase to the spread of slavery.” (p. 216)

In the first decade of the 19th Century, Virginian slaveowners proposed and the Congress passed a law ending the importation of slaves from Africa and, at least on paper, ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Slave states had done this because of the competition African slaves presented to the South’s own indigenous slave market. Virginia had too many slaves. White men as well as black were having sexual intercourse with slave women and the children of these unions were often sold. The thought of white slaveowners selling their own children should give anyone pause, but it was done as often as not. And as the South filled up with slaves and the land was settled, slaveholders were looking westward for the market in human beings. By the time of the Civil War, the largest single financial class of property in the nation was not land, railroads, public works projects, banks, or insurance companies; it was slaves. Slavery itself had replaced agriculture as the primary source of wealth and assuring that there would be a market for slaves was vital to the South.

The Constitutional bargain with the very particular Devil of slavery had specified that, for purposes of proportional representation in the House of Representatives, a slave would count in the census as 3/5ths of a person. This rule had the effect of tilting the Supreme Court and the Congress in favor of the Slave interests for nearly a century.

With the passage of these laws by a Congress dominated by slave interests, between 1855 and 1860 Northern states began to pass new ‘personal liberty’ laws that authorized the state to “provide counsel for accused fugitives, required that their status be determined by a jury trial, and increased the penalties for kidnapping free blacks.” (p. 216)

What becomes clear throughout the course of Foner’s book is that slaves self-liberated often after years of planning and hoping, spurred on by their impending sale, the sale of their children or wives (most runaways were male), and that they received almost no organized assistance until they had made it to a free state. Recognized by sympathetic Whites, or more likely, Blacks, the fugitives would be shepherded further and further out of harm’s way, a path that eventually had to lead to Canada, beyond the reach of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

What is also clear is that the 1820s ‘back to Africa’ movement among white abolitionists received a very mixed response from black abolitionists and activists. And the opinion split between black leaders was uneven, with a minority positing that racism was so deeply embedded in America that racial equality and equality of opportunity under the law was impossible. The vast majority of black activists however felt that America was the only home they had known, it was their country, and they demanded it be a nation of equal opportunity and treatment regardless of one’s ancestral country of origin, color, ancestry or racial designation.

And so, as Foner notes in his book, two hundred years ago, the modern idea of equality was born.

–Scott Ainslie, April 1, 2015
Brattleboro, VT


Interesting sources cited in Gateway to Freedom:

The Underground Railroad (1872), a journal begun in 1847 by Black abolitionist William Still and published in several editions at the request of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society beginning in 1872.

The Liberty Line (1961), a critique of earlier romanticized work by Wilbur H. Siebert, a historian at Ohio State who wrote extensively about the Underground Railroad and exaggerated the importance of Whites while omitting the agency of Blacks in initiating their own escapes and spontaneously aiding fugitives, often at great personal risk.

The Bondswoman’s Narrative (late 1850s), the first novel written by an African-American woman published under the name Hannah Crafts, and written by Hannah Bond, who had escaped from slavery in North Carolina.

The Rev. J. W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman: A Narrative of Real Life (Syracuse, 1859)
The autobiography of the man who was known in Syracuse as the city’s “underground railroad king.”


Scott Ainslie

Born in Rochester NY in 1952, Scott Ainslie has been playing music on something since he was three years old. A guitarist since 1967 with powerful appreciation for and apprenticeships with elder black and white musicians in different musical traditions, Ainslie carries a portion of them forward in his own traditional blues performances and songwriting.

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