Reviewed by James T. Campbell
Sunday, April 1, 2007
I'VE GOT A HOME IN GLORY LAND
A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad
By Karolyn Smardz Frost
Farrar Straus Giroux. 450 pp. $30
ESCAPE ON THE PEARL
The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the
By Mary Kay Ricks
Morrow. 432 pp. $25.95
New York recently unveiled plans for a memorial to Frederick Douglass, the one-time fugitive slave who became 19th-century America's most eloquent proponent of racial equality. The project was immediately engulfed in controversy -- not about Douglass but about the monument's granite pedestal, which features carved replicas of African American quilts. Inspired by a popular 1999 book, Hidden in Plain View, the pedestal includes explanatory panels describing how patterns stitched into such quilts were used to convey coded messages to black fugitives fleeing north along the Underground Railroad.
The problem, as several prominent historians of slavery have noted, is that no contemporaneous evidence proves that such a code ever existed. There are certainly no references to quilts in the voluminous writings of Douglass, who escaped to freedom by train and steamship, disguised in the kerchief and broad-brimmed hat of a sailor.
Welcome aboard the Underground Railroad, a world in which history and folklore, memory and myth, have become so interwoven as to be inextricable. To be sure, there were covert networks to assist fugitive slaves -- a "railroad," in the inevitable metaphor of the era -- but the system was less organized and extensive (and distinctly less white) than most Americans today imagine. The countless white Northerners who point proudly to the basement or the old barn where their forbears sheltered escaped slaves are, more often than not, engaging in wishful thinking.
At its best, the abiding national fascination with the Underground Railroad honors the memory of courageous men and women who challenged a violent and inhumane system. But there are perils here. Focusing on the flight from slavery rather than on slavery itself not only indulges our appetite for celebratory history -- Americans love nothing more than stories of righteous individuals overcoming insuperable odds -- but also contributes to the myth that slavery and racism were exclusively Southern matters. Much as exaggerated tales of the Resistance have long obscured French complicity in the Holocaust, so have stories of the Underground Railroad helped Northerners evade any sense of responsibility for slavery and its abiding legacies.
Karolyn Smardz Frost's I've Got a Home in Glory Land and Mary Kay Ricks's Escape on the Pearl are the two latest contributions to the burgeoning literature on the Underground Railroad. Both authors operate within the celebratory tradition, recounting "heroic bids for freedom" by fugitive slaves, aided by courageous abolitionist allies. Fortunately, both authors are careful scholars who write with a due sense of proportion and historical context. If their books do not completely dispel the popular mythology swirling around the Underground Railroad, they at least invest the subject with much-needed historical specificity.
Frost, the executive director of the Ontario Historical Society, meticulously reconstructs the story of Thornton and Lucie Blackwell, an enslaved couple who escaped from Kentucky in 1831. Lucie's owner had recently died, and the couple apparently feared that she would be "sold down the river" to feed the voracious demand for slave labor in the lower Mississippi Valley. Armed with forged freedom papers -- how the pair, who were both illiterate, came by the papers is unclear -- they took a ferry across the Ohio River to Indiana, boarded a Cincinnati-bound steamship and proceeded by stagecoach to Detroit, where they settled.
The Blackwells might have passed their lives in anonymity but for a chance encounter with an old acquaintance from Kentucky, who alerted their erstwhile owners to their whereabouts. The owners successfully appealed to have them arrested and returned to Kentucky, in conformity with federal law. But no one had reckoned on the determination of the local black community, which sprung Lucie from jail and rescued Thornton by force of arms. Spirited away to Canada, the pair became the subject of a diplomatic imbroglio between the United States and Canada, which ended with the Canadian government declaring itself unwilling to extradite fugitives unless they were guilty of a capital crime.
Ricks, a local historian, examines a more spectacular event. In April 1848, more than 70 enslaved African Americans boarded a schooner, the Pearl, in Washington, D.C., and sailed for freedom. Unfortunately, a storm on Chesapeake Bay forced the Pearl to seek shelter, allowing a posse on a pursuing steamship to apprehend the ship and its passengers.
The sheer scale of the venture made the Pearl episode a cause celebre. While Sen. John C. Calhoun pressed for new fugitive-slave legislation to stem "these atrocities, these piratical attempts" to steal legal property, invigorated abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe raised money to purchase freedom for some of the fugitives and to provide a legal defense for the ship's captain (who appears to have taken the job chiefly for financial reasons). Ricks devotes the bulk of her engaging book to the aftermath of the escape, focusing in particular on the travails of two teenage girls, Mary and Emily Edmonson, whose passage from the Pearl to the New Orleans slave market to Oberlin College is as dramatic as anything in Stowe's bestselling Uncle Tom's Cabin.
To read these books is to be struck anew by "the courage, ingenuity, and, above all, the immense craving for freedom that characterized the fugitive slave movement." Yet it is also worth pondering why we find such stories so compelling. Does our national fascination with the Underground Railroad provide a means for Americans to confront the reality of slavery or to evade it? What of the courage and ingenuity of those millions of enslaved men and women who never traveled the Underground Railroad, who lived, struggled and died in the prison house of American slavery? Perhaps someday we will erect a monument to them. ·
James T. Campbell's most recent book is "Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005." From 2003 to 2006, he chaired Brown University's Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.