Notable new book: Eric Foner’s GATEWAY TO FREEDOM – The Underground Railroad

Review by KEVIN BAKER – NEW YORK TIMES

“I dreaded the approach of summer, when snakes and slaveholders made their appearance,” wrote Harriet Jacobs, author, educator, servant, mother of two — and escaped slave.

Jacobs had fled from Edenton, N.C., to get away from the attentions of the father of a little girl who “owned” her. These had persisted even after she had two children by another white man (and a member of Congress), so she “hid in a small crawl space above her free grandmother’s kitchen in the town” for seven years, as Eric Foner informs us in his illuminating new history, “Gateway to Freedom.” Eventually, passage north was secured on a ship with a “friendly captain,” and Jacobs settled in New York City. But as an escaped slave, she was never really secure anywhere in the United States, especially after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850. When, after 10 years of freedom, she learned that her owner “was making preparations to have me caught,” she fled again, to Boston, where abolitionist feeling was higher than in New York, which had long been debased by bigotry and the dollar into more pro-Southern sympathies.

It may seem difficult to believe that slave owners and hired slave catchers prowled the streets of Manhattan before the Civil War, openly carrying whips, pistols and manacles in order to reclaim their “property,” but such was the case. They “entered black churches during Sabbath services looking for runaways, and broke into blacks’ homes and carried them off without legal proceeding,” Foner tells us. Fugitive slaves in the city, wrote the Southern-born abolitionist Sarah Grimké, were “hunted like a partridge on the mountain.”

Unsurprisingly, the men who would make their living in this way were not terribly scrupulous about just which black face they decided to seize upon. Once the slave trade from Africa was banned in 1808, and as slavery in the North was slowly wound down, “an epidemic of kidnapping of free blacks, especially children,” occurred all over the Northeast. After the new federal statute of 1850 was passed, Foner writes, “the abolitionist William P. Powell departed for England with his wife and seven children, although no member of the family had ever been a slave.”  Continue reading the main story NEW YORK TIMES

GATEWAY TO FREEDOM

The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

By Eric Foner

Illustrated. 301 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

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