tv After Words CSPAN April 8, 2015 12:51am-1:50am EDT
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>> thank you for having me. >> gateway to freedom, i hadn't history of the underground railroad how did you arrive at the subject and title? >> well, the title is meant to reflect the book centers in new york city where he deals with a lot of other places. the title the title is meant to suggest that new york was a kind of gateway. when fugitive slaves got to new york city there were quickly sent to upstate new york eventually canada and could achieve freedom. new york new york was a pivotal turning. i i got interested in the subject completely accidentally. a few a few weeks ago a student of mine was working on a a senior thesis at columbia about sidney howard gay, and abolitionist journalist was interested in his journalistic career and said, in the papers there is
a document about fugitive slaves. i am not sure what it is about. you might find it interesting. i interesting. i filed it away and one day asked for this box. i had never seen it say anywhere but the basically for two years 1855 to 1856 a journalist and activist in the underground railroad record of the recorder the experiences of over 200 men women, and children who came through new york city. being a journalist, he interviewed them and took down their stories, who on them, why they escaped, how they escape how they escaped, who helped them and even how much money he spent. so this was a remarkable document. and i decided to try to track down the leads in the record of fugitives and see
if i could paint a picture of the underground railroad as it came to new york city. the book began with a document. usually you start with a historical question and then try to find the sources that can answer it. here it is the opposite. i started with a document and work outward from it trying to piece together a narrative of history. >> what was the underground railroad? if you could briefly describe exactly what it was and how it operated and how many people took advantage of the system. >> right. well, everyone interested in american history has probably heard the term the underground railroad. it it is widely known as a phrase. it is easy to say what it was not. it was not a highly organized regularize system with set routes and stations and station masters. it was much more loosely organized than that.
the underground railroad was a group of local networks abolitionists, activists some in the south mostly once you get north of the mason-dixon line either in rural areas like southern pennsylvania or cities like philadelphia, new york syracuse, boston and they communicated with each other and were dedicated to helping fugitive slaves. the initiative the initiative comes from the slaves. the underground railroad was not in the south. but running away in various modes. but modes. but then they would make contact. agents of the underground railroad.
so much of this is in secret. maybe a thousand slaves he year got out of slavery to the north and canada in the 30 years before the civil war. 30,000 people come a substantial number. there were 4 million slaves, so so this is not destroying the institution of slavery but 30,000 people gaining their freedom with the assistance of white and black activists is something i i think we can look back on with pride in history. >> you speak of the underground railroad as a quasi- public institution. what do you mean by that?
>> yes, the people involved were abolitionists and involved in the movement. on the one on the one hand they are engaged in secret and illegal activities sheltering and assisting escaped slaves and on the other hand there going to public meetings petitioning the legislatures of the states. in some places actually holding bake sales he might almost college fairs bazaars to raise money to help fugitive slaves. when you when you get to upstate new york it is completely open. the key activists there advertise in the newspapers. on the head of the underground railroad of syracuse. he had fundraising parties at his house. the authorities were anti- slavery.
they did not bother him. depending on where you were it was more or less secret and more or less up. in new york it was pretty secret. secret. close ties to the south a lot of public officials. not as is public as syracuse or albany places like that. >> this process and sentiment. slavery is in new york in 1827. but there is strong sentiment in favor of the south for a long time after that. this connection with the york we don't emphasize this. we pride ourselves on being a bastion of liberalism, tolerance, multicultural city. it was not like that in the
1st part of the 19th century. slavery was a vigorous presence in new york in the colonial era and lasted all the way down to 1827 1827 and after that there were slaves on the streets of new york for southerners visiting the city were about to bring slaves along with them for up to nine months until 1841. twenty years before 20 years before the civil war there will still slaves visible. the the key thing is new york was economically tied to the slave south. new york merchants control the cotton trade. new york bankers financed the expansion. shipbuilders build the ships. the most important southern monthly periodical before the civil war which was actually published in new york city said new york city is as -- depends on slavery as much as charleston does.
the economy of the city was closely tied to the south which had all sorts of ramifications. business interests wanted to appease the south. politicians were pro- southern. the abolitionist movement was quite small and weak compared to other places. on the other hand new, new york had a vigorous free black committee people who are willing to take to the streets to protest the apprehension of fugitives -- fugitive slaves. new york is the epitome of the sectional conflict. >> your.is well taken that there is a vibrant free black community in new york. so they are very much involved in supporting these fugitives who are arriving. they they are forming vigilance committees with white new yorkers.
free black people have a prominent role to play and what happens to people who are fugitives. while i have we not heard much about that? >> that is right. these vigilance committees philadelphia, new york boston which were what they call themselves, these groups were almost entirely black except the one in boston. they were created by free blacks. the 1st is created by a black abolitionist. but there were white abolitionists involved. interracial organizations and much of the money came from whites. whites. most free black people rather poor. money was raised among them
but in new york they went to lewes to penn well-to-do merchant who was a dedicated abolitionist contributed a lot of money they went to jared smith. whites were contributing money and taking part in activities, but mostly activity is by free blacks in many are anonymous or unknown to us. black dockworkers. fugitives who came in hidden on ships dockworkers would notify. blacks worked at the railroad depots for blacks who worked in hotels as cooks for domestic workers for seven or came to the hotel with this way they would say, look, you you can become free if you want. their activity there activity was important. why don't we hear more about it?
after the civil war the white abolitionist wrote the long histories. they wrote their memoirs the underground railroad and there's a lot of valuable information but they tended to make it a white into price giving assistance to help was black people commend the heroes with the white abolitionists the story was skewed in these reminiscences and it has taken a long time for scholars to put the free black communities back at the center of assistance to fugitive slaves. >> indeed, you mentioned but by 1830 there is the presence of militant abolitionism and accompanying that is a greater increase in flight from slavery. >> well, there have been anti- slavery sentiment in
new york. created created in 1785, 1786 to push revolution in new york but those groups were moderate compared to what came later. they did later. they did important things, set up the african free school. but they were uppercrust types, many own slaves, and they certainly did not violate the law. they tried to help fugitive slaves legally but 70 we will not violate state or federal law. the new generation of abolitionists that comes about in the late 1820s and 30s arises partly out of the evangelical movement of the time the religious revivals which inspire some white people and blacks to kind of think that they can read society of this land of
slavery right away. it -- you also have this militant free black community coming into its own partly because of the opposition to the colonization movement. 1817 the colonization society is established dedicated to getting rid. and they find that a tremendous threat. by the 1830s you have these two groups who come together, evangelical whites and notes and blacks to form a much more activist and radical abolitionist movement, and then they start assisting fugitive slaves in illegal ways. it is against the law but they say, this is the law of god not the law of man. and i think more slaves start escaping because of knowledge that there are people willing to assist them. slaves them. slaves have escaped ever since there was slavery. there were no organizations
to help them can and most of the slaves probably get recaptured. now you have groups being formed who are publicly saying, we will help fugitive slaves, and news event percolates back into the south and inspires more people to try to escape. >> the main.is that running away has broader implications than just what the individual act was seemed to suggest. for instance, the acting the active -- the actions of fugitives and their allies forced on the center stage explosive questions about the balance between federal and state authority the extent to which the laws of slave states extended into the north and the relationship of the federal government to slavery. talk a bit about this especially how the issue of rendition became a source of debate.
>> absolutely. it is in the constitution. this constitution. this was debated at the constitutional convention. it does not use the word slavery slavery. it says persons held the labor escaping from one state to another must be returned. like many parts of the constitution they are vague. it does not say who has to return them, what procedures, them what procedures, is there a trial, judge, it does not say that. a fugitive slave law was passed but that also was weak and basically put the onus on the owner. if the if the owner goes up north and grabs his fugitive he can take them back, but that was not easy to do often. slave hunters, but there were people who resisted.
resisted. 1850 the federal government passes under law which makes it a federal responsibility the federal government will now send marshals in northern states to grab fugitives setting up a whole new position. the federal commissioner who will hear these cases and send them back. even says that the army can be used if there is a danger of a riot or something. this was a strict law, draconian, strict punishment for people who help fugitive slaves of people who refuse to help the government and capturing them and it led to a lot of opposition in north on the basis of states rights. this was the south amending federal action to overturn local procedures local laws in the north probably the most vigorous expansion of federal power over the states in the whole time before the civil war. so this is part of the
run-up to the civil war the sectional controversy and the fugitive slave issue becomes part of that, but the.i want to make which is obvious in a way without slaves running away none of this would have happened. it is the initiative of slave resistance in the 1st place that triggers this sectional conflict. even though people did not run away thinking oh zero i'm going to become an issue in a national political debate there actions helped to force this sectional conflict onto the agenda of national politics. >> and it is worth noting that that fugitive slave act of 1850 1850 was probably the most un-american outlaws because it did not give the person being accused of having been a fugitive any right to testify in court, court, and it actually. the commissioner more money to release the person the
would-be owner or suggested owner than to actually remove the person. so it is very un-american in that regard. >> you are absolutely right. the fugitive cannot testify on his own behalf. basically it was a property operation. the owner would turn up with a deed or description and say here is proof that i own. this guy escaped. here is proof i own them. and that is it. it was like finding a peace of furniture. it was a property operation. the property does not have the right to testify. no no trial by jury on the local authorities involved. as you say many people who were not abolitionist et al. found this and outrageous violation of civil liberties
in the united states and therefore that is why it heightened sexual tension. for outside of the abolitionist movement many thought this was an unjust judicial procedure. >> and of course the war comes in president lincoln makes it very clear that the south has nothing to fear in terms of him attacking the domestic institutions, including slavery. in his 1st inaugural address he is clear that he is going to enforce all laws , including the fugitive slave act. >> absolutely. >> he had been clear before he was sworn in that he would not compromise on the ascension of slavery into the territory but in terms of the fugitive slave act he was really to actually ensure that the act was enforced as long as people who were truly free were not caught up in it. and we can never be certain that.
>> that is exactly right. right. lincoln was not an abolitionist. he never claimed to be. before the war he said as you say, opposed to the western expansion of slavery but never called for a violation of the fugitive slave law. he was a lawyer a man who believed in in the law. the famous letter in 1855 lincoln said about fugitives i hate to see them hunted down but i bite my lip and keep silent. why? because this was in the constitution, federal law. unlike the abolitionists he said, i don't believe in a higher law. i don't believe i don't believe you can apply by the more loyal than the actual law on the books. and in the secession crisis he said i said i don't care what we do about fugitive slaves. i'm willing to give them
secession is on that. although i would like the fugitive slave law amended so that free people cannot be caught up. you know, he can't even testify on his own behalf. so they didn't force did enforce the fugitive slave life beginning. from the very beginning they ran away to the union army, maryland and the army in the army sent them back to their owners early on. pretty quickly that begins to fall apart. by the end of 1861 the army is no longer sending fugitives back and lincoln himself as is saying, if they get to our lines they are free. i we will not turn them back. this is a sign of how the war itself quickly begins to destabilize the institution of slavery.
>> you introduced courageous and sometimes quite colorful historical figures such as sidney howard gay williams still free porn black man. in agent for people coming in and who himself actually kept a record of some people arrived from interesting details of their lives. william j and john j the 2nd were very much involved in working with fugitives can sometimes actually defending or representing legally. i was most intrigued by napoleon. can you tell us a little bit about that particular figure it how instrumentally was? >> he was certainly one of the most important figures.
i have studied 19th century. i knew about william still. i i had never heard of lewis the polling. but i started looking through this document napoleon took them to the station or send napoleon. who is this napoleon? eventually it turns out that a black man boy in new york in 1800 which 1800 which meant the law had been passed in 1799 for gradual emancipation. so he was not a slave exactly but had an apprenticeship of my 21 years to his owner until he became fully free and did that. the 1820s he finally becomes free. basically he is working in the office of sidney howard gay the anti- slavery office but his main job is to go and help fugitive slaves. he scours the docs.
when william still when william still since people by train from philadelphia to new york louis napoleon goes and meets them at the train of the train depot and brings into his office and they are sent to abstain new york and canada. the interesting thing command he goes to court to get writs of habeas corpus for slaves who were brought to the state trying to get them free. use illiterate yet he is an activist. a remarkable guy and i knew nothing about him until i discovered him in the manuscript. in one case the lawyer says
is this louis napoleon the emperor of france? and john j who is representing the slaves says, no, he is a much better man. a very upstanding a courageous man. >> and he is just one of many african-americans so intimately involved in helping these fugitives. we know so much about harriet tubman made several trips to free relatives and people that she did not know we we don't know about people until now were escaping either individually or in groups. can you tell us a little bit about how their experiences showed the diversity of why people left, what they encountered along the way
and what they actually received in terms of assistance once they arrived in new york? and thinking of people like taxi peter matthews william jordan those names we have not heard before but have interesting stories. >> is are all names in the record of fugitives. they have been lost to history up to this. unlike harriet tubman. the thing the thing that struck me the most and reading through this document is the incredible variety of ways in which people escaped reasons for their escaping some escaped on foot head through the day and went through the woods at night but most are not. many escape gunboats.
ship captains and virginia were willing to hide some fugitives on their boats heading north for a fee. some escaped on train. train. frederick douglas to that in 1848. you could get on the training go to the north and that was a lot easier than doing it through the woods. some of them stall or appropriated horse-drawn carriages of their owners and fled from maryland to pennsylvania, many escaping in groups groups of relatives, sometimes women with small children. and they were helped by all sorts of people. below the mason-dixon line original -- generally helped by black people would.them on their way or give them some food. they did not go from station to station the way we sometimes think.
there were not stations in the south. they relied they relied on the help of black people he encountered until they reach maybe wilmington delaware whether was thomas garrett and a regularized kind a regularized kind of group. once they got over the border and pennsylvania they encountered many quaker farmers and then they were sent to philadelphia widow was where there was the vigilance committee. he would quickly put them on a train. napoleon would go and meet them. and very quickly because you could not stay in philadelphia on new york. so the.was quickly to get them moving to upstate new york. but but after 1850 you had
to get to canada. you you were not safe in the united states. it is a commentary on the history. people who had to flee the united states for another country to enjoy liberty. >> indeed you are right. free black people leaving the united states and going to canada in the north. they are in places like philadelphia on new york. >> you are right. it is retroactive. you could have escaped 30 years before raised a family, lived a perfectly law-abiding life and were liable to be grabbed and sent back to slavery. moreover because of the way that the law operated it was
hard to prove that you are not the slave of the guy who claimed to you were a slave. so yes. in the 1850s. the only decade, the only decade, i believe, the black population actually declined avoid the danger posed by the fugitive slave force. >> you mentioned the fact that women are sometimes thing as well. often the children in tow. the story we don't hear very much about. it is difficult. that women in the north are very much involved in helping fugitives when they arrive. can can you tell us about what there doing?
>> as i said in southern pennsylvania you have quaker families including women one of them i wrote about. she wrote in a memoir part of the quaker rule, family at home fugitives she and other women had a sewing circle ready-made clothing for fugitives because they were wearing rags basically when they escape for slave clothing and they looked look like slaves. we did not want her to look like slaves, so he made this calling for them. in new york and other cities women held these anti- slavery bazaars fares where they sold things and sometimes the money would go to help fugitive slaves like bake sales you might say. a committee of black women in new york city holding fares to raise money to help the fugitives.
it was both interracial in male and female working to assist the fugitive slaves in northern states. >> i am always i am always struck by the fact that abolitionists are anti- slavery but many of them are also anti- black. how do you explain this? >> you know, racism, as know, racism, as you know, of course, was deeply embedded in northern as well as southern society. this is something that i often find difficult to explain. how can you be anti- slavery and racist at the same time. there are plenty of reasons to oppose slavery that have nothing to do with race. you can think it is an economic drag on the country to make it is the south to much legal power. you can think that you don't
want slavery going into the western territories because you don't like black people. people who want to settle in the kansas are places like that don't want blacks around so they oppose the expansion on that ground. there are all range of reasons. even the same person can be contradictory. definitely an abolitionist. he would not hire black people to work in his business. a big mercantile firm. he would not have black clerks. the reason is why people will come into a shop that they see black people working there. on the other hand he hit election is old, fugitive slaves and get a lot of money to the antislavery movement so in his own life
you can see these contradictions which only proves that people and history are complicated. >> absolutely. and despite this anti- black sentiment throughout the north you have some of these states passing personal liberty laws. what what was the reaction of southerners to this? >> personal liberty laws tried to set up procedures added to make it more fair. an accused fugitive has to have a trial by jury or they try to impede the rendition by saying, well, the public official can help and i sure can rest of fugitive. public jails cannot be used to house a fugitive. some were very alarmed by these laws because this seems to be in direct violation of the constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves.
if there going to pass laws taking away that constitutional right how can we trust that they will not violate other constitutional rights? these laws became another part of the sexual conflict. you get this right situation for northern states are calling for nullification of the federal fugitive slave law whereas southerners calhoun would usually associate with the .-dot for nullification. >> when the war was over and there are no more fugitives to assist these agents of the underground railroad and members of the vigilance community reaching all their efforts and try to ensure equality for the newly emancipated. given the role of african-americans why was
it so difficult for these people to convince white americans that african-americans were entitled to more than just freedom? equality as well. >> well, lydia maria child in the 1st woman to edit of political newspaper was the editor of the anti-slavery standard for sidney howard k take over that post. ..
>> >> many were roused by that but even if not egalitarian as thinking that they tried to undo the civil war to abolish slavery and the rebels will not accept that. for a time they supported measures to protect the basic rights of the former slaves the civil rights act the 14th amendment giving blacks the right to vote with radical reconstruction
for complicated reasons but then by the 1870's racism reasserts itself to black equality had in the north is withering that is the story of the of the destruction. >> host: why does that have been? but why buy this time to say enough already? >> guest: i wrote a 600 page book about this. but racism has a history it isn't constant all the time with the end of the civil war with 200,000 black soldiers in that convince
many northerners. but by the 1870's people want normalcy. they don't want a return back to normal with severe economic depression of the sentiment pushing away from southern issues. with that sort of thing so that commitment is a complicated story. racism has a lot to do with it also social darwinism with the idea we cannot do much to change the hierarchy of the world the survival of the fittest to take those at the bottom is against nature like trying to save the species that is doomed with
that evolutionary conflict. so all of this is grounds to say we tried hour best there is nothing more we can do. it is up to them to force their way in society. so to intervene is:. >> host: you are very familiar with the post emancipation era so i feel comfortable asking you this question even though really isn't the focus of your book. given all of that could have been done and was not been even though there is efforts what do you see is the greatest failure?
but it is always fun to do that. >> guest: to me the greatest failure is the commitment to enforcing though lot. the selfie and african americans will have plenty of problems there is no way you will have utopias of a ride away. the selfie was devastated devastated, that, in the economy african-americans cannot of slavery. those who think they distributed land then you give that economic foundation. obviously it is better to have planned day of not if
you are in the ever cultural society but white fired -- farmers were in dire straits to own their land. it could have been avoided. it is hard to imagine scenarios for this did not happen with the enforcement of a lot to say we passed the islamists to create equality regardless of weight -- race and a check almost another 100 years. when the federal government stepped in and to enforce the law. so once that happens things
change. they have to abide by the lot. they didn't understand that by the 1870's. >> host: with the distribution of land. >> guest: that wasn't the full solution. but it was desperate throughout the world of the last quarter of the 19th century. many lost their land that is why it is the populist movement so land in and of itself was not enough. >> host: primarily in virginia that is very different. >> guest: that is a very different situation but i talking about the cotton south. >> host: other areas was a
possibility. and they may have been for to rely of those to enslave them. >> guest: a considerable amount were thinking about it. >> host: than they lost the land. in terms of the records records, what most surprised about that collection? >> guest: the incredible resourcefulness or of the of their hands those who'd have an opportunity.
talking mostly from the upper south. so most of these people are from maryland port district of columbia or virginia. but it is a variety of experiences. note to personal experiences are the same mitt is the desire for freedom. some gave very specific reasons often they say my wife was sold or i was afraid i would be sold but many just said i was tired of being a slave. i wanted to be free with a
kaleidoscope. via the way let me say. i have to july is anyone who pours through this you kin google's fugitives put there by the columbia university library system. >> host: you are familiar with the collection in a philadelphia but how do the to records compare? >> with the pennsylvania historical society. law all of them survived
although it wasn't a journalist. with the riches stories but what is important to use the two together to link up the stories. over half are from philadelphia at touche still talk about their experiences and still give us more information about how they got to york to see if the stories are consistent. but they were quite
consistent and you can use that information but to say is this true? tuesday i escaped from colonel hollingsworth per croquet. let's go to the census. so we begin to find that they are reliable. with the information to go back to "the baltimore sun" to see the ads were the order puts the name in the newspaper. a reward for the person who will get them. so that is the good illustration from where they
came from. >> for zero successful these people were. >> the problem is most of them just disappear to pop up with the canadian census. how there were plaques elements with fugitives may know for some of them they we're doing their job but most of them some of the most famous but have them shipped in a crate. winner of frederick douglass
, harry jacobs coming harriet tubman but we know very little after they manage to get to freedom. >> host: that those who go to great lengths. >> if i have to walk more than a few blocks. [laughter] but they were walking sometimes 200 miles. this is extraordinary. what would you like "the reader" to take from this? >> guest: this book is a little different because the wanted to humanize it.
these individual stories and i just want people to have a sense with the dangers and walking hundreds of miles in be betrayed. so the stories of slaves of they escaped but also to take away admiration for those working on the ground. with a fairly tense area of race relations with the events taking place since staten island and ferguson. this is an example of black
and white people working together for a just cause that we can look back:. >> host: there is a series that is tearing. with african-americans such talking about that earlier fugitive population. >> guest: led all watch tv very much. i hope it will be repeated so with that revolution it was occupied by the print --
by the british as a patriot but not all loyalist so when the war was over george washington cannot to negotiate the surrender and evacuation in the british commander said know i cannot bring him back because that would be dishonorable. we promised their freedom would be dishonorable to turn them back. slavery was thriving in the british empire in the west indies. good king keeps his promises. so that is left with the british.
now they scattered all over the place. some ended up bin sierra leone. summit in the west indies. so those 3,000 african-americans through the british but not to the americans is another sign of the contradiction. >> host: the book is titled "gateway to freedom" the hidden story of the underground railroad" professor thank you for joining us today. >> guest: thank you for having me very much