Emancipation Day, August 1, celebrates the formal end of slavery in the British Caribbean in 1834 and the final termination of the quasi-slavery “Apprenticeship” in 1838.
In the United States, however, it took a great civil war to end slavery in the 1860s. “Juneteenth” remembers the day some African Americans in Texas were told they were free in June 1865, over two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.
Long before the Civil War began in 1861, many thousands of enslaved people escaped from the “slave states” in the south to seek freedom in the “free states” in the north where slavery had been abolished. They were helped by networks of men and women, black and white, in the slave states and the free states, which was called at the time the “underground railroad”.
My great book club recently discussed two fine novels by award-winning African American writers on this theme, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer.
Both use fictional devices—Whitehead imagines an actual, physical underground railway, Coates has characters using magical or supernatural powers—to convey the horrors and the dramas of the time.
But the reality of the Underground Railroad was so dramatic and remarkable that it hardly needs fictional treatment. And a Trinidad-born historian, Richard Blackett, has published a wonderful, deeply researched study of how it operated in the 1850s, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom (2018). This massive book (over 500 pages) is based on years of research in over 20 archives or libraries all over the USA, on countless local newspapers from free and slave states, and on hundreds of published accounts—the bibliography alone is over 20 pages.
Enslaved people had been escaping to the free states long before 1850, but in that year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law. It made it legal to seize fugitives from slavery who had made it to a free state and, after a cursory court hearing, to drag them back to their place of enslavement.
Inevitably, sometimes persons who were not fugitives but were legally free were kidnapped and enslaved down south—Solomon Northup, author of Twelve Years a Slave, is the most famous example.
In response, informal networks of men and women, mostly black but also including many white abolitionists, developed in the slave and free states. They helped the enslaved to escape to the free states and often on to British Canada, and they organised to prevent the seizure of fugitives who had managed to get to a free state.
In hundreds of cities, small towns and rural communities, free African Americans openly defied the law and protected and moved on fugitives in their area. In the strongholds of abolitionism like Boston, white men and women were their allies. This was the Underground Railroad.
Blackett studies in absorbing detail how the Fugitive Slave Law worked, or was supposed to work, and how the “conductors” of the railroad mobilised to protect fugitives wherever they could.
His study concentrates on the slave states closest to the border with the free states, such as Kentucky and Maryland (where Harriet Tubman worked), and on the free states on the other side, especially Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Each chapter begins with, and is built around, the story of an actual escape by named people, exploring their motivations for running and the experiences they had during their time travelling on the railroad.
Many succeeded and got away from their legal pursuers, in Canada or in the northern USA; some were seized and returned to enslavement until freedom came with the Civil War.
Blackett’s profoundly researched book illuminates a story of courage and self-sacrifice in the cause of human freedom.
—Bridget Brereton is
professor emerita of history
at The UWI, St Augustine