Gateway to Freedom

The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

nolead begins By Eric Foner

W.W. Norton. 320 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Michael D. Schaffer

Antebellum America's most famous railroad had no tracks, no timetables, no first-class accommodations, but it did have a first-class destination: freedom.

It was the Underground Railroad, the network of escape routes that delivered thousands of fugitives from slavery to liberty in the decades before the Civil War. Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian from Columbia University, tells the secret system's story in Gateway to Freedom, bringing to bear the insights of a long and distinguished career writing about the Civil War and Reconstruction eras and a sharp sense of the ironies that involuntary servitude posed for a nation that proclaimed itself to be built on principles of liberty.

Nobody knows exactly how many slaves ran off. "Estimates - guesses, really - suggest somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 per year between 1830 and 1860," Foner writes. That was, he adds, at best a tiny fraction of a slave population that reached nearly 4 million by 1860. But it was enough to exacerbate relations between North and South and play "a crucial role in bringing about the Civil War."

Particularly galling to the North was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made the capture and return of runaway slaves the responsibility of the federal government and tied the hands of the states. Under the act, slave catchers could follow runaways into Northern states and require local officials to assist in returning them to slavery. In one of those ironies that went along with slavery, the South, in this instance, supported strong action by the federal government. So much for states' rights.

Taking the Underground Railroad was no easy ride. Foner shows just how tough escaping from slavery could be by opening with the gripping account of a Maryland slave's flight to freedom in 1838. At a time before the term Underground Railroad had come into use for such aid, numerous people helped him, and he changed identities twice, finally giving himself the name by which history knows him: Frederick Douglass.

Foner focuses tightly on New York City, a way station for "self-emancipated" ex-slaves. He relies heavily on a little-known manuscript from abolitionist editor and Underground Railroad conductor Sydney Howard Gay that gives the history detail - and a human face. While many fugitive slaves set out for New York, the city itself was pro-Southern and wasn't safe as a final destination, especially after the Fugitive Slave Act made it easier to return runaways to their owners. The city became a stopover on the way to somewhere else - upstate New York, say, or Canada - farther away from slave-catchers and owners.

Gateway to Freedom is also a highly readable, succinct overview of the Underground Railroad and a quick review of the history of slavery up to the Civil War. New York is far from the only focus: The Underground Railroad was a system of linked local operations, so Foner also pays attention to efforts in other areas, including extensive coverage of William Still, the black abolitionist who ran the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia.

Foner takes care to give African Americans credit for their role in the success of the Underground Railroad. It wasn't, as myth would have it, "a white humanitarian enterprise in aid of helpless blacks," he writes, but rather "a rare instance in antebellum America of interracial cooperation." And without the courageous support of all segments of the black community, right down to the ordinary men and women who opened their homes to fugitives, it would have gone off the rails.


Eric Foner,

"Gateway to Freedom"

7:30 p.m., Thursday at the Free Library, 1901 Vine St.

Tickets: $15; $7 students.

Information: 215-686-532, www.freelibrary.orgEndText

Michael D. Schaffer is a former book review editor of The Inquirer.