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The Courage And Ingenuity Of Freedom-Seeking Slaves In America

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.

'Daunting Odds'

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:

  • Henry "Box" Brown and Lear Green were not the only slaves who tried to ship themselves to freedom. On April 19, 1860, the New-York Tribune reported a slave "was put into a box at Nashville last Friday and shipped for Cincinnati the intent of the parties being to make him free. On the arrival of the train at Seymour, Ohio, careless handling started off a part of the cover and disclosed the fugitive who was sent back to bondage."
  • Newspapers in North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin carried a small item — in October 1859 — about a young girl, owned by a man in Ghent, Ky., who painted herself white. She donned a disguise and boarded a ferry boat bound for Ohio. "Before reaching shore," according to the account, "her awkward actions led to a discovery and she was returned to Kentucky."
  • The New York Times in 1853 published a dispassionate report from the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina. There, slaves — rented out to a wood shingle-making enterprise — lived several months out of the year. They could earn money and even, on occasion, buy their freedom. But the swamp was also home to a population of runaway slaves. "Some of them would rather be shot than took," an African-American guide explained to the reporter. Systematically, slave hunters with dogs and guns swept the remote wetlands. According to the reporter, the guide "told me he had seen skeletons, and had helped to bury bodies recently dead. There are people in the swamps now, he thought, that are the children of fugitives and fugitives themselves all their lives. What a strange life it must be!"

"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.

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Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org.

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