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“Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad,” by Eric Foner, WW Norton, NY, 2015. This 301-page hardback is a recent addition to the story of the underground railroad, a legendary means by which many escaped slavery. As recent history goes, the underground railroad is unusual in that little of the story in documented in the records. A few station masters kept records of those they helped and some escaped slaves later told their stories. Protection of methods and participants often meant details were omitted, obscured, or misreported. Distinction between fact and legend can be difficult. Both abolitionists and slave owners exaggerated the numbers.

Foner focuses on the underground railroad in New York. Many slaves escaped by water. Southern cotton often came to New York for transport to Europe. Numerous vessels sailed along the coast. Some would hide an escaping slave. Others walked the distance. Some went by train. Some were shipped in crates. Escape from border states was easier. Often Canada was the safe destination. A study of the 1861 Census in Canada found that 80% of the fugitive slaves there originated in only three states: Maryland, Virginia or Kentucky. Blacks–especially children–were often kidnaped in cities like New York and sold into slavery. Free blacks were always at risk.

In New York, slavery ended officially in 1827, but economic ties with the South made New York City more tolerant. Planters often brought their slaves to New York City. Slaves were not uncommon in New York long after slavery was outlawed. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had a major impact. It required the capture of fugitive slaves and imposed fines if officials failed to do so. Previously capture of runaways was a private matter. Article IV, Section 2 of the US Constitution required the return of fugitive slaves. The provision counting slaves as three fifths of a person, known as Three-Fifths Compromise, is Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the US Constitution.

Armed groups looking for runaways, i.e., slave catchers, roamed the South. After the death of over 50 whites in Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion (1831 in Southhampton County, VA), they became more numerous.

The term underground railroad first appeared in print in 1839, but became widely accepted in the 1850s. The underground railroad was an arm of abolitionist societies. Mostly they were driven by churches. The organizations were not unified. Leaders in Boston and New York were often at odds. The New York organization was known as the New York Committee of Vigilance. Abolitionist organizations used funds raised from donors to assist escapees paying fares or bribing key players, providing shelter, transportation, and sometimes legal representation.

One of the best known runaways was Frederick Douglass, who described his escape in his autobiography. His route included a train and a steamboat. He escaped from Maryland in 1838, before the underground railroad, which became active in the 1840s. He went by way of New York City changing his name twice finally arriving in New Bedford, MA.

Maps show underground railroad locations in New York City. In Manhattan, 18 are listed; in Brooklyn, five. David Ruggles was the leader of the New York Committee of Vigilance from its founding in 1835 until 1840. He did much to publicize the abolitionist movement. He held meetings to collect funds and report progress. Many participants were free blacks who feared capture and enslavement. Black churches and fraternal organization supported the work. Ruggles also hired attorneys to defend those captured as runaways. In the 1840s, Theodore S. Wright became leader of the organization, but he was more secretive than Ruggles.

William Lloyd Garrison of Boston had strong views about abolition. He criticized churches that supported slavery in any form. The Boston organization split off in 1840. Charles T. Torrey is sometimes described as the inventor of the underground railroad. He was an abolitionist who settled in Washington, DC in 1841. He arranged stations on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, but died in a Maryland prison in 1844.

Harriet Tubman is well known for her efforts for the underground railroad. She is sometimes referred to as the slaves’ Moses. Foner shares some of her stories and those of other escaping slaves. He includes considerable detail of those who led the abolitionist organizations. How stations and personnel were recruited, trained, or organized is not available. In the north, abolitionist organizations could work in the open. Secrecy was necessary in slave owning areas. Slaves probably knew from recaptured runaways who to contact, but the escape network required contacts and organization. Most likely churches were key players.

This is a detailed telling of the underground railroad story. Much is still unknown, but Foner does his best to assemble what is available. Photos. References. Index.
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