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Book review: Historian Eric Foner explores New York’s role in underground railroad

Historian R.J.M. Blackett recently noted the renewed interest in the underground railroad, which he considers “the most clandestine aspect of the antebellum abolitionist movement.”

Whereas early historians glorified the role of white humanitarian abolitionists in spiriting helpless runaway slaves to freedom in organized networks, modern studies emphasize the role of the slaves and of Northern free blacks in aiding the bondsmen to escape in more ad hoc ways.

Eric Foner’s “Gateway to Freedom” examines New York City’s role as a “crucial hub” in the underground railroad. Foner, who teaches at Columbia, is one of America’s foremost historians.

He establishes New York’s importance as a way station for hundreds of fugitive slaves from the Upper South and the interracial, interclass coalition of local activists who transported them from one safe house to another. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, those who aided escaped slaves risked federal prosecution. Foner insists, however, that “by far the greatest credit for successful escapes goes to the fugitives themselves.”

Historians estimate that in the years 1830-1860 between 1,000 and 5,000 slaves escaped per year to freedom, only minimally reducing the South’s 1860 population of 4 million slaves. But runaway slaves outraged slaveholders who insisted on their rendition. During the 1850s the courts returned more than 300 fugitive slaves to their owners. Ongoing tensions over runaway slaves inflamed sectional tensions and precipitated the Civil War.

Foner hypothesizes that underground railroad operatives helped between 3,000 and 4,000 slave runaways traveling through New York. He acknowledges that although these numbers “may well be exaggerated,” in New York and other northern communities “little-known men and women, operating against formidable odds,” ferried runaways to freedom. Indeed, some of America’s most famous fugitive slaves, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman and Henry “Box” Brown, passed through the city.

Foner is no naïve popularizer of the underground railroad. Aware of the filiopietism of early writers on the subject, he recognizes the difficulties in writing a definitive history of a movement shrouded in secrecy and prone to romanticizing. “The story of the underground railroad in New York is like a jigsaw puzzle,” he writes, “many of whose pieces have been irretrievably lost, or a gripping detective story where the evidence is murky and incomplete.”

Nonetheless, Foner writes convincingly that by the 1850s New York occupied a central place in an interregional system that assisted runaway slaves in reaching freedom. More than 1,000 fugitive slaves passed through the city during that decade alone. Abolitionists like Sydney Howard Gay, the white editor of the “National Anti-Slavery Standard,” aided hundreds of fugitives from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and elsewhere who made their way to New York. With the help of other operatives, Gay dispatched the runaways northward to Albany, Syracuse, Boston, and to freedom in Canada.

Foner also chronicles the activism of David Ruggles, the African-American secretary of the New York Committee of Vigilance, founded in 1835 to combat the kidnapping of New York free blacks. The committee worked to protect children from abduction and sale into slavery and sheltered, transported and provided legal representation for fugitive slaves. It reportedly assisted more than 800 runaways.

Readers will welcome Foner’s account of underground railroad activities in New York City, but his bigger contribution lies in demythologizing and explaining the workings of the underground railroad itself. Never an organized system, it constituted “an interlocking series of local networks, each of whose fortunes rose and fell over time.” And significantly, the networks were less clandestine than historians have assumed. In short, the underground railroad was “an umbrella term for local groups that employed numerous methods” to aid fugitives on their journey to freedom.

John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte. He recently published “We Ask Only for Even-Handed Justice: Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865-1877.”

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