Review of Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad
Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad
By Eric Foner
Published by W.W. Norton & Company: New York and London: January 29, 2015: 301 pp.
For those of us raised on that unforgettable Scholastic grade school book about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, this volume is a significant contribution to expanding our understanding of that distinctive institution.
Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, whose impressive career as an historian has largely focused on the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Reconstruction, brings his many scholarly gifts to bear on this comprehensive and compelling exploration of the Underground Railroad.
Foner’s interest in New York’s anti-slavery work was triggered by one of his Columbia student’s discovery of a notebook containing a “Record of Fugitives” in the papers of the 19th century abolitionist editor, Sydney Howard Gray which, in turn, motivated this prolific historian to pursue a nuanced investigation into the realities of the Underground Railroad.
While “it is impossible to say how many slaves escaped to freedom in the decades before the Civil War,” there’s no denying that “ the city was a crucial way station in the metropolitan corridor through which fugitive slaves made their way from the Upper South through Philadelphia and on to upstate New York, New England and Canada,” Foner explains.
New York wasn’t exactly pure. Slavery existed in New York, and its environs until 1827; New York’s relationship with the abolition movement was complicated by the city’s entangled commercial interests with the slave-holding South. Unlike upstate communities, or New England, formal abolitionist movements existed alongside entrenched institutions that were perfectly content to profit from slavery. Many individuals participated in capturing, and returning, fugitive slaves.
Nonetheless, there was enough of an abolitionist presence to make the Underground Railroad effective. As Foner writes, “the picture that emerges from recent studies is not of the highly organized system with tunnels, codes, and clearly defined routes and stations of popular lore, but of an interlocking series of local networks, each of whose fortunes rose and fell over time, but which together helped a substantial number of fugitives reach safety in the free states and Canada…The ‘underground railroad’ should be understood not as a single entity but as an umbrella term for local groups that employed numerous methods to assist fugitives, some public and entirely legal, some flagrant violations of the law. The underground railroad in New York City conforms to this pattern.”
Besides covering statutes, judicial actions and larger historical forces, Foner also enlivens these pages with portraits of some of the more active participants in the Underground Railroad—men, women, African-American and white—that highlights the personal costs of the struggle.
The Underground Railroad continues to exert a powerful attraction for scholars as well as lay readers. Foner’s work is an important addition to ongoing debate about its role in the pre-Civil War era, and adds immeasurably to our understanding of its complexity.#