What I’m Reading Now


Actually what I just finished reading. When I became aware of the pre-Civil War era, there was this notion that except for Thomas Wentworth Higginson and a few others, the abolitionists didn’t write much. The theory was that those assisting people fleeing the tortures of enslavement wanted to keep their activities secret. Recent scholarship has given the lie to that idea. These folks wrote letters, recorded the stories of the people they aided, kept records, and generally left a trove of material.

Eric Foner, who has had a distinguished career as an author and professor of history, adds to that trove with Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. With a focus on New York City – the gateway — Foner tells the stories of the well-known: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Bailey aka Frederick Johnson aka Frederick Douglass, of Henry “Box” Brown, and the Reverend J.C. Pennington.

More importantly, Foner mines records kept by Sydney Howard Gay, a white man. Though it only covers 1855 and 1856, Gay’s manuscript as Foner says offers a “rare account … of the inner workings of the underground railroad in New York and its connections north and south of the city.” William Still of Philadelphia left a more extensive record, and his work has received more attention. But Gay’s legacy will offer historical fodder for years.

His group included black and white “operators,” and Foner places the free black population of New York at the center of the effort. An early leader was Connecticut native David Ruggles, who traveled the countryside raising money and awareness for the cause well before the term “underground railroad” came into common usage.

The star of these operators was Louis Napoleon, a New Yorker who helped some 3,000 on their way to freedom with food, clothing, shelter. He served as a legal clerk though illiterate by rushing to courthouses for writs of habeas corpus for alleged runaways. He also risked his own personal safety by traveling below the Mason-Dixon line to escort people into New York and on into safety, often in Canada.

As a counterpoint this bravery and determination, Foner highlights the resistance of the business and political establishment to the Underground Railroad effort as they helped southerners kidnap their “property.” Like a good number of Connecticut’s manufacturers, many New York businessmen relied on the custom and trade of the enslavers. With the complicity of judges and law enforcement, the New York elites were initially able to circumvent the efforts of the Underground Railroad workers.

Foner brilliantly describes how the Fugitive Slave Law began to change public opinion. Eventually time and tide rendered the Underground Railroad obsolete. In the poignant closing chapter, Foner outlines what is known of the conductors after the Civil War, much less about the black men and women than the whites. The son of one black operator, William H. Leonard, led a black volunteer fire company in Asbury Park, which shut down in 1907 because whites threatened to let fires burn.

Though the history covered in Gateway to Freedom ends more than one hundred years ago, it nevertheless provides an excellent framework for examining the struggle between the disenfranchised and the powerful elite that continues today.

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