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'Gateway To Freedom': Heroes, Danger And Loss On The Underground Railroad


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today is Eric Foner's first day as the American historian laureate named by the New-York Historical Society, which also has given him their American History Book Prize for his latest book "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad. It was recently published in paperback.

"Gateway to Freedom" is based in part on a document few scholars were aware of until recently - a record of fugitive slaves that was written by Sydney Howard Gay, who was a key underground railroad operative from the mid-1840s until the eve of the Civil War.

Gay also was the editor of the weekly newspaper the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Foner's book focuses on the city that Gay lived and worked in, New York, which Foner says was a crucial way station in the Northeast Corridor through which fugitive slaves made their way from the upper South through Philadelphia and onto upstate New York, New England and Canada.

Foner is a professor of history at Columbia who has written several books about the Civil War era and has won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize. I spoke with him last year when "Gateway To Freedom" was published.


GROSS: Eric Foner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the importance of Sydney Howard Gay's records, which are such an important part of your interpretation now of what happened in the Underground Railroad.

ERIC FONER: Well, the importance of this - what he called the record of fugitives, which is a little book he kept in 1855 and 1856 recording the experiences of fugitive slaves who passed through New York City in those two years. The importance is that it's really a very, very rare and unusual firsthand account from that time itself of these fugitive slaves. And, you know, he was a journalist, so he interviewed them and he got - he wrote done a lot of information about who they were, where they came from, who their owners were, how they escaped, who helped them on their way to the North.

Then what he did - who assisted them in New York City, where he sent them to 'cause he's sort of a pivotal figure in helping fugitive slaves who pass through New York get to the North and Canada. So it gives you a first-hand account of the operations of one important piece of the Underground Railroad, you know, right at the time. It's - a lot of information we have about the Underground Railroad is really memoirs from a long time after the Civil War.

And, you know, as you know, people's memory is sometimes a little faulty, sometimes a little exaggerated. So here we have documents right from the moment when these things are happening, and it's a very unusual and revealing, you know, picture of the world of these fugitive slaves and the people who assisted them.

GROSS: Gay's records reveal some of the extraordinary means that slaves used to achieve their freedom. Give us an example.

FONER: Well, you know, we tend to think of fugitive slaves - and this often happened, of course - you know, individually running away, hiding in the woods at night - or hiding in the woods during the day, I should say, and then 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 lone individuals.

There were groups - they were family groups, they were groups of just random people who came together to escape. And they escaped in using every mode of transportation you can imagine. They stole carriages - horse-drawn carriages from their owners. They went out on boats into Chesapeake Bay and tried to - you know, little canoes kind of things - and tried to go North. And 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 because, you know, working on boats was one of the few occupations available to free blacks at that time - or by train, actually. The railroad network was pretty complete by this point.

And quite a few of these fugitives actually managed to escape by train, which of course is a lot quicker than going through the woods. So you have an amazing number of, you know, kind of instances of just resourcefulness of fugitive slaves. And many of them sort of used different method. They would run away from a plantation. They would go in the woods for maybe 50 miles, and then they would somehow get on a boat or a train. So some of them used a lot different methods. But the records that he kept give a real sense of the ingenuity of many of these fugitives in figuring out different ways to get away from the South.

GROSS: One of the most celebrated figures in the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. And she twice brought fugitive slaves through Gay's office in New York City. And one of the stories that he records was that she went to Maryland hoping to bring out her sister in 1856, but her sister wasn't ready. So Tubman didn't just turn back, she brought out other people instead. Who did she end up bringing out?

FONER: Well, she - you know, Tubman is a very unusual and unique figure. She went back a number of times. She escaped herself around 1850. And she went back a number of times, as is, you know, pretty well known now, to bring out other slaves - both relatives and others - from Maryland where she originated. There were other fugitives - and this is mentioned in the book - who went back maybe once to try to get out their wife or children or something like that.

But Tubman did this several times. And over the course of the 1850s, it's estimated that she led 70 to 80 people to freedom. Now, in this particular instance that you mention - and Gay records this in his record of fugitives - her sister wasn't ready. She was, you know - sometimes people had been promised their freedom in the future. Sometimes people were just nervous that they didn't - you know, it was dangerous to run away. And if you were captured - as many people were trying to do this - you could be pretty severely punished.

But as you say, Tubman then turns to other slaves in the vicinity, you know, and brings them out. She was a very resourceful and courageous person - terribly courageous because if she had been captured, she certainly would've faced very drastic punishment.

GROSS: She brought out on this trip - as you describe it in the book - two brothers. Both were married and they left behind their wives and a total of seven children. And the woman who they brought with them on the way, who was an escaped slave, her owner had presented her 4-year-old son as a gift to a nephew who then left with the child to Missouri. But she left behind a husband and their 17-year-old daughter and four grandchildren. Did escaped slaves typically leave behind members of their family? There must've been such tough choices to make.

FONER: This was a terrible situation for people, obviously. Slavery itself was a terrible situation, clearly. But the - yes, everybody left somebody behind, whether it was a child, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, et cetera. As I said before, 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, you know, much more likely you'd be captured.

So this record and other documents of the time are full of rather, you know, 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, even my husband, my wife, my children out? And, you know, that was not very easy most of the time. Most of them couldn't really do that. A few did. There are stories in here of, as I said, people who went back or people who even hired someone to try to get a relative out of slavery.

But, you know - so most of the slaves who escape and who are mentioned in this record are young men - men in their 20s, basically, who often - you know, many of them did have wives and children, but many of them didn't. Many of them were unattached in that sense, although they left parents behind. So maybe three quarters were men, maybe a quarter were women. It was a much more wrenching decision, maybe, for a mother to worry or, you know, to think about leaving and not being able to take a child with her. So, you know, this is part of the human tragedy of slavery that even the act of escaping put people in an almost, you know, insoluble kind of dilemma.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Foner. He's a professor of history at Columbia University. His new book is called "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Foner. He's a historian and a history professor at Columbia University and author of the new book "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad."

Until the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which required officials in the North and individuals in the North to turn in fugitive slaves, there were a lot of regional laws of different strengths that, you know, regulated what to do about fugitive slaves. What were some of those laws?

FONER: Well, Terry, the first thing to remember, of course, is that the Constitution itself has a fugitive slave clause which says that - it doesn't mention the word slave or slavery. That word isn't in the original Constitution. But it says these people who escape, who are held to labor have to be returned. The problem is that's pretty vague. It doesn't say who is responsible. Is it the states? Is it the federal government? What kind of procedures can be used?

There was a national law passed in 1793, right at the beginning of the Republic, but even that was pretty vague. And so in the early 19th century, yes, every state in the North had a law saying that, yes, fugitive slaves could be arrested and sent back to the South. This was a constitutional obligation.

But they also included many protections against kidnapping and, you know, whether the slave - the accused slave - could have a trial by jury or things like that. And Southerners found it harder and harder to use the legal processes to retrieve fugitive slaves.

By the 1840s, many northern states were passing what they call personal liberty laws, saying that local sheriffs can't participate in the apprehension of fugitive slaves, local judges can't issue orders about it. So all this leads up to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which is a powerful federal law. It makes it a federal obligation. It overrides these laws of the states, and it says, OK, federal commissioners, federal marshals will take responsibility for seizing and adjudicating the cases of fugitive slaves. It also says that any citizen can be deputized to, you know - to help apprehend a fugitive slave.

And if you don't want to do that, if a marshal comes and says, hey, there's a fugitive slave down there and you're now a member of my posse, and you say, you know, I don't really want to do that, you are - you're committing a federal crime. And officials can be indicted in federal court for not assisting with fugitive slaves. So this - the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 federalizes the whole process, makes it much more efficient. There were many, many fugitive slaves sent back to the South from numerous parts of the North in the 1850s under the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law.

But, of course, it also arouses tremendous opposition in the North because this is one of the - you might say one of the most flagrant violation of state rights and local judicial processes in the whole history of the United States up to the Civil War. One of the ironies here, of course, is that the South, which often claims to believe in states' rights is now demanding a law which abrogates the rights of the northern states when it comes to the question of dealing with fugitive slaves.

GROSS: One of the ways - one of the most important ways that the Fugitive Slave Act affected free black people in the North was that they became more vulnerable with this new law. And many black people fled to Canada where they could find some safety.

FONER: Absolutely. I mean, New York City or many northern cities saw an exodus of African-Americans - free people, these - you know, or fugitive slaves. One of the things about the Fugitive Slave Law, it was retroactive. In other words, someone could've escaped in 1835 and been living peacefully in New York City with a wife, children, working at a job, and suddenly in 1850, they're now vulnerable, really, to being captured and sent back to the South. And then, of course, the way the law operates with the accused person not having the right to testify in his own behalf, it was pretty easy for free people to be, you know, just sort of picked up in this system.

One of the very first instances indicates this. A fugitive was seized in Pennsylvania in late 1850, was brought before a Federal Commissioner, remanded back to a owner in Maryland. And when he got there, the owner said, uh, this is not the right guy. You didn't get the right guy. This is not my slave. Well, he had gone through a judicial process which identify him as this slave, but it was completely fraudulent.

So, yes, many thousands of free blacks in the North from Boston, from New York, from Syracuse, from other places now took the occasion to go to Canada because there you were really free. Canada would not extradite fugitive slaves to the United States.

Of course, this is a kind of irony considering that we as Americans tend to think of ourselves as a place that people come to in order to enjoy freedom. People throughout our history have fled from tyrannical regimes overseas seeking liberty in the United States. But here you have thousands of Americans having to leave the United States in order to enjoy freedom. There was more freedom in Canada for them under a monarch - under the British monarchy - than there was in the liberty-loving United States.

GROSS: The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was intended to help prevent the South from seceding, but you say it actually helped lead to the Civil War. Why?

FONER: Well, the Fugitive Slave Law - and you might say the fugitive slave issue - was a major catalyst of the growing sectional divide in the 1850s. The Fugitive Slave Law led to considerable opposition or even nullification, you might say to use a Southern phrase, in a number of northern states. Remember just like the South, the North was divided. You had much more conservative states like Pennsylvania, Indiana. And in those places, the Fugitive Slave Law was enforced pretty effectively.

But if you get further up into New England, into upstate New York, northern Ohio, then it becomes more and more difficult to enforce. And you have these violent rescues of fugitive slaves, altercations between black and white crowds and police authorities or federal authorities, where sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. But this kind of violation of the law alarms more and more people in the South and says, you know, we can't really trust the North. And, you know, Southerners said, look, the right to get back fugitive slaves is in the Constitution. This is not open to debate, and yet it's being violated in parts of the North.

Well, if they will violate that part of the Constitution, how do we know they won't violate other parts of the Constitution down the road? How can we be sure that the constitutional protections for slavery will, you know, be recognized as time goes on?

As I mentioned in my book, when South Carolina secedes in 1860 - now, very few slaves got out of South Carolina. You know, that was a long way from the North. But when they secede and the secession - the legislature issues this Declaration of the Causes of Secession - sort of like the Declaration of Independence had been - the longest part of it, the longest paragraph is about fugitive slaves, that the North has violated the Fugitive Slave Law, impeded the return of fugitive slaves. And that is their longest reason, the reason with the longest discussion of why the South must secede.

So certainly, the actions of fugitives, the actions of the Underground Railroad, the actions of sympathetic people in the North widened the gap between North and South. This is not the only cause of the Civil War by any means, but it is one of the important factors that led to secession and Civil War.

GROSS: You know, in another irony of this story, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was used as a model for the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

FONER: Correct.

GROSS: In what way was it used as a model?

FONER: Yes, well, that is a great irony because the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in Reconstruction, one of the most important laws in our history which puts the notion of equal civil rights for all Americans regardless of race into our national law for the first time, it's modeled on the Fugitive Slave Act because it's an effort to override state - states which impede the rights or violate the rights of American citizens.

The Fugitive Slave Law was to enforce a constitutional right of the South over and above Northern opposition. Now they use the same kind of structure with federal officials, federal penalties to punish southern states, which at this time are trying to almost put blacks back into slavery after the end of the Civil War.

So it's the same mechanism of federal oversight of local activities in order to protect a basic constitutional right - first, the right of - to get fugitive slaves and now the right of freedom of the former slaves after the Civil War, which has been put into the Constitution in the 13th Amendment. But the mechanism is the same, so it's very ironic. I quote one of the members of Congress saying we're using the weapons that slavery has placed in our hands, now in the cause of freedom. But the same weapon of federal authority overriding local and state opposition.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Eric Foner. His new book is called "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad." Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Foner. He's the author of the new book "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad."

Are there certain myths about the Underground Railroad that you would like to debunk?

FONER: (Laughter) Historians are always debunking things, of course. I think, you know, there are a number of myths. And some of them were propagated by abolitionists in the late 19th century, even by Sydney Howard Gay himself in a "History Of The United States" he wrote years after the Civil War.

Number one myth, which I don't think is widely held today but certainly had a long history, is that the Underground Railroad, or indeed the entire abolitionist movement, was an activity of humanitarian whites on behalf of helpless blacks, that the heroes were the white abolitionists who assisted these fugitive slaves.

Now, they were heroic, and I admire people like that who, you know, really put themselves on the line to do this. But the fact is that black people were deeply involved in every aspect of the escape of slaves, whether it was the slaves themselves who made the decision to escape, which is the number one thing. But in the South, they were mostly helped by other black people, slave and free. When they got to Philadelphia or New York City, local free blacks assisted them; all the way up - same thing - up in the - the Underground Railroad was interracial.

It was a very - it's actually - something to bear in mind today when sometime racial tensions can be rather strong. This was an example of black and white people working together in a common cause to promote the cause of liberty. And I think it deserves recognition, but certainly one should not in any way diminish the role of African-Americans in this Underground Railroad operation.

There's another myth, which some historians have sort of accepted over the past 20-30 years, which is that there really was no Underground Railroad. In a way, some of the early work was so exaggerated about, you know, stations everywhere and every other house was hiding slaves and there were secret passwords and quilts with, you know, routes in them - great exaggeration. And then of course the next historian comes along and knocks it down and says, no, no, no, no no, no. There was no such thing. People escaped, but there was no operation.

There was - I think now with my book, and other books which have come out, we see the Underground Railroad for what it was. It was not a giant operation, but it was, as I said, a series of these local networks connected to each other, which did communicate, did operate effectively - in some cases, not all - and did succeed in assisting a pretty good number of fugitive slaves to reach freedom. So I think it should be admired for what it was. There's no need to, you know, grossly exaggerate its operation or to deny that it existed at all.

GROSS: Your area of specialization is the area of the Civil War and just after reconstruction. And in fact, your "History Of Reconstruction" has just been republished in a new edition with a new introduction. So can you compare a little bit the history of that period as you were taught it when you were a student to how you teach it now? 'Cause history is always changing. History is always being rewritten.

FONER: Yes, it is. You know, in a way, the subject that has always interested me, it seems, that pops up in all of my books - this is something of course everyone's interested in - is how social change happens. Who is responsible? How does it happen? How did slavery - and I'm very interested in the struggle against slavery, the abolitionist movement. They were not a majority by any means. But talking about changes in history - you know, when I was growing up and learning history, the abolitionists were just irresponsible fanatics. They helped to bring on an unnecessary civil war. They were universally condemned.

Today, I think abolitionists are seen much more as precursors to the modern civil rights era as people who, even though they may have made errors obviously, were actually engaged in a very, you know, noble effort to rid the country of a horrendous institution. Reconstruction, which was for many, many years viewed as sort of the low point in American history, a period of corruption, misgovernment, a period when blacks, who were incapable of exercising democratic rights, were, you know, somehow ran amok in the South and the Ku Klux Klan were the heroes.

Well, today, we see it completely differently. I think we see it as a period very important in the history of American democracy that is the first effort to create a genuinely interracial democracy in this country. And the tragedy of reconstruction is not that it was attempted but that it failed.

You know, I think what has happened in the last half-century since the civil rights era is that the racist underpinning of so much American historical writing has been eliminated. It's no longer possible to just say, oh, well, blacks are just incapable of taking upon a democracy, and that's why, you know, reconstruction didn't work or that's why the Civil War happened because just a bunch of fanatics got upset about slavery for no reason. Anyway, slavery wasn't that bad, was it?

No. I think today we have a much deeper understanding.

One - as W. Du Bois said in "Black Reconstruction In America" way back in the 1930s - one of the great works of American history - if you just assume that African-Americans are human beings like everybody else, the whole edifice of historical interpretation on that period collapses, the edifice that existed back then.

GROSS: Eric Foner, it's always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

FONER: Thank you, Terry, great to talk to you.

GROSS: Eric Foner's book, "Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad," was recently published in paperback, has just received the American History Book Prize from the New York Historical Society, which just named him American historian laureate.

Monday on FRESH AIR, Charles Bock tells us about the chapter of his life when his wife was diagnosed with leukemia. She died two and a half years later, leaving him the single father of their 3-year-old daughter. His new novel, "Alice & Oliver," is based on that ordeal and draws on his late wife's journal. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, describes the novel as haunting and raw. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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