‘The Underground Railroad figured prominently in the politics of slavery and freedom in antebellum America. Yet it has confounded modern historians, who have tended either to exaggerate its scope or to dismiss it as largely mythological. In his carefully argued new book, Eric Foner aims to set the record straight. Drawing on his deep expertise in the history of abolitionism, Foner demonstrates that one cannot understand the origins of the American Civil War without taking into account the resistance and activism of fugitive slaves and their antislavery allies.
Foner’s focus is on the beleaguered and intrepid cadre of operatives who ran New York City’s Underground Railroad hub in the 1850s. The city was part of an “interlocking series of local networks” that stretched from Virginia into Canada, constituting the railroad’s Northeastern corridor. The book’s early chapters set the stage, explaining that New York was no bastion of abolitionism but instead a zone of conflict over slavery. Lagging behind other Northern states, the Empire State did not abolish slavery until 1827. Even after abolition, slavery persisted because of an 1817 state law that permitted Southern slaveowners, who thronged Manhattan on business and as tourists, to bring slaves along for up to nine months without those slaves becoming free. Moreover, the problem of kidnapping plagued the city, as it did Philadelphia. Whites routinely seized free blacks, claimed fraudulently that they were slaves and, with the blessing of corrupt local officials, sold them or hauled them off to the South.’ (from Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition Yale University ENewsletter 26 January)
In Gateway to Freedom, historian Eric Foner tells the story of Sydney Howard Gay, an abolitionist newspaper editor; Louis Napoleon, furniture polisher; and Charles B. Ray, a black minister. Between 1830 and 1860, with the secret help of black dockworkers, the network led by these three men helped no fewer than 3,000 fugitives to liberty. The previously unexamined records compiled by Gay offer a portrait of fugitive slaves who passed through New York City — where they originated, how they escaped, who helped them in both North and South, and how they were forwarded to freedom in Canada.
Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-873790-2. Hbk. Publication in Britain February (estimated).
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