The Unheard Stories of the Underground Railroad
Historian Eric Foner turns sleuth, tracking the Underground Railroad.
Some say the past is another country; lost in a mist of folklore and myth, familiar yet tantalizingly unknowable. This has surely been true of the Underground Railroad, which was enshrouded in secrecy by necessity and therefore left behind few clues. We've known only bits and pieces, in part from the tales and songs and poems of ex-slaves. But now Eric Foner, a Columbia University professor and expert on the Civil War and Reconstruction, has written Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (Norton), a riveting account of fleeing slaves, activists and abolitionists—rich and poor, well-known and obscure, black and white—who worked tirelessly to move fugitives to safety. Using documents only recently uncovered by historians, among them the Record of Fugitives, a register faithfully kept by 19th-century journalist and fierce antislavery activist Sydney Howard Gay; Foner creates a visceral chronicle of defiance and sacrifice.
The term Underground Railroad was perhaps first used by a Washington newspaper in 1839, quoting a young slave hoping to escape bondage via a railroad that "went underground all the way to Boston." Only a tiny percentage of slaves escaped north—estimates range from 1,000 to 5,000 per year from 1830 to 1860, by which time the slave population had reached four million—but for those who did, and for those who could at least dream it was possible, the Underground Railroad came to represent salvation. From Foner we learn more about familiar figures such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as the unsung resisters who established the networks, working in seclusion when needed in public in the courts until the Civil War.
Among them were William Powell, a black abolitionist who operated the Colored Seamen's Boarding House and helped organize "a crowd of colored persons" to gather at the wharf to protest the holding of slaves on a ship in the harbor; and Louis Napoleon, a black furniture polisher who lived not far from a ferry terminal, where he met fugitives and moved them quickly to shelter. Napoleon's obituary read, "Not the French Emperor, but an Old Friend of the Fugitive Slaves."
In 1855, abolitionist James Miller McKim wrote that when slavery met its "just doom," the stories of fleeing slaves and those who aided them would "excite the admiration, the reverence and the indignation of the generations yet to come." The evocative and moving portraits of courage and resilience that emerge here remind us of our long history of fighting for equality and freedom.