Much of what you learned about the Underground Railroad in elementary school is a myth. Often pictured as a highly organized system of rural white farmers throughout the north, the Underground Railroad was instead a complicated, sporadic, ever shifting network of rural Quaker farmers, urban abolitionists, and free African-Americans, spanning the border states and spreading north towards Canada. Most slaves escaped from the Upper South (Delaware, Maryland, etc.) and many fled not on foot but by boat or other means.
In his new book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, historian Eric Foner focuses on the often over-looked role of the Underground Railroad in New York, a city where many residents had strong Southern sympathies. Until the Civil War, it was not unusual for slave catchers to prowl the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn looking for escaped slaves, and sometimes kidnapping free African-Americans. In response, white Abolitionists and free African-Americans formed vigilance committees to support escaped slaves and prevent kidnappings.
Foner’s book focuses on the remarkable individuals who worked to protect former slaves in New York City, including Louis Napoleon, an escaped slave who later helped nearly 3,000 individuals to freedom. Although the book is slow at times, Foner expertly connects human stories to the important events (such as the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act) that ultimately led to the Civil War and the end of slavery.
Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Challenge: Book published in 2015