Columbia University History Professor Explores the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad In ‘Gateway To Freedom’

Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and has written several books about the Civil War era. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize. Daniella Zalcman/Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co.
Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and has written several books about the Civil War era. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize.
Daniella Zalcman/Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co.

Until 2007, when it was unearthed by a Columbia University undergraduate, few scholars were aware of the record of fugitive slaves written by Sydney Howard Gay. Gay was a key Underground Railroad operative from the mid-1840s until the eve of the Civil War. He was also the editor of the weekly newspaper the National Anti-Slavery Standard.

When historian and Columbia University professor Eric Foner saw the document, he knew it was special: It listed the identities of escaped slaves, where they came from, who their owners were, how they escaped and who helped them on their way to the North.

“A lot of information we have of the Underground Railroad is really memoirs from a long time after the Civil War and you know … people’s memory is sometimes a little faulty, sometimes a little exaggerated,” Foner tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “So here we have documents right from the moment these things are happening — and it’s a very unusual and revealing picture of the world of these fugitive slaves and the people who assisted them.”

Foner’s new book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, focuses on New York. According to Foner, the city was a crucial way station in the railroad’s Northeast corridor, which brought fugitive slaves from the upper South through Philadelphia and on to upstate New York, New England and Canada.

“This was a great social movement of the mid-19th century — and these are the things that inspire me in American history,” Foner says, “The struggle of people to make this a better country. To me, that’s what genuine patriotism is.”

Interview Highlights

On the different methods of transportation slaves used to escape

We tend to think of fugitive slaves … individually running away, hiding in the woods during the day and traveling at night. But Gay’s records indicate that certainly by the 1850s, when the transportation system was well-matured, many of these fugitives escaped in groups, not just alone. … And they escaped using every mode of transportation you can imagine. They stole carriages — horse-drawn carriages — from their owners, they went out on boats into [the] Chesapeake Bay, little canoes, and tried to go north. Large numbers of them came either on boat from Maryland or Virginia, places like that — they stowed away on boats, which were heading north, often assisted by black crew members — … or by train. The railroad network was pretty complete by this point and quite a few of these fugitives managed to escape by train, which is a lot quicker than going through the woods. …

The records that [Gay] kept give a real sense of the ingenuity of many of these fugitives in figuring out many different ways to get away from the South.

On fugitives leaving family behind

Everybody left somebody behind, whether it was a child, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, et cetera. … Occasionally you did have family groups managing to escape together, but obviously escaping with a young child would be a rather difficult thing — it would make it much more likely you’d be captured. So this record and other documents of the time are full of rather heartbreaking stories of people who got out and then had to figure out, “Well is there any way I can get some of my relatives [out].” That was not very easy most of the time. …

Most of the slaves who escape and who are mentioned in this record are young men — men in their 20s, basically. … Maybe a quarter were women. … This is part of the human tragedy of slavery that even the act of escaping put people in an almost insoluble kind of dilemma.

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SOURCE: NPR

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