Mary Walker was a 30-year-old slave in North Carolina who decided, in the summer of 1848, to seek her freedom. It was a bold and wrenching decision. She was in Philadelphia when she escaped — her owner, Duncan Cameron, had brought her there to attend to his daughter, who was under medical care — but her children and her mother were in North Carolina. Precisely what moved her to take this incredibly risky step is not known, but it appears that she and Cameron had had words and that he had threatened to send her to the family’s plantation in Alabama. Not only was life there likely to be far more trying for her than it had been in North Carolina, but the plantation was run by Cameron’s son Paul, who Walker apparently feared might be a more callous master than his comparatively lenient, if moody, father.

Like so many other slave stories, Walker’s is mostly shrouded in mystery, but Sydney Nathans has found enough reliable documentation to render it plausible and pertinent. An emeritus professor of history at Duke University, Nathans is a careful researcher and lucid writer but not, it seems, a born storyteller. Rather than hold the reader in suspense about the fate of his subject’s children, he lets us know at the outset that she was reunited with them at the end of the Civil War and that they joined her in Massachusetts, where she had lived since 1850. To be sure, Nathans is a historian, not a novelist, but it strikes me as a pity that he missed an opportunity to tell a dramatic story as well as a historically revealing one.

That was his choice, though, and if it deprives his story of drama, it in no way diminishes its contribution to the growing body of literature about life under, and after, slavery. The more we learn about slavery in America, the more we understand the complexity of the system that evolved around it and the resilience, intelligence and ingenuity of the enslaved. Walker was no more an ordinary slave than she was an ordinary person. She “was literate and wrote many letters,” though “only three have thus far been found.” She was light-skinned, and it is “almost certain that her father was white”; indeed, her father may have been Duncan Cameron, though Nathans is more inclined to suspect William Taylor, a physician who was frequently in the Cameron household. Whatever the case, she was a household slave and lived on intimate terms with the Camerons:

“From childhood on, Mary Walker had spent as much time in the white household as in her own. The Cameron sisters had taken her in, first as a pet, then as their young servant. She had accompanied them to their lessons, gone with them to their Episcopal churches, mended their gowns, surely emptied their chamber pots, tended them in sickness, clothed them for burial. Her long association with the Cameron girls and their tutor had made Mary Walker, as much as an enslaved young woman could be, a cultivated person.”

She was intelligent and kind. Susan Lesley, a white woman in Massachusetts who became her most important benefactor and close friend, was startled by what she learned when Walker joined the Lesley household in 1850. She found it hard to believe that Walker was a fugitive slave, “for no one would guess it from her color.” She spoke “the most beautiful English I ever heard, & seems like a lady. She sews beautifully, and wants to go out as a seamstress by the day or the week.” She was “a truly religious person, [who] speaks of her old master and of slavery without resentment but with horror. When she thinks of her mother & her little children, whom she never expects to see on earth, for she left them in slavery, she says ‘I will be patient, that I may meet them all in heaven, where we shall all be free.’ ”

’To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker’ by Sydney Nathans (Harvard University Press)

Lesley and her husband, Peter, a minister who really wanted to be a geologist, agreed to take in Walker after the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put escaped slaves at risk in Pennsylvania and other states that felt obliged to enforce the law. Massachusetts, the strongest redoubt of abolitionism, was not one of these: “For Peter Lesley, as for many Northerners who opposed slavery but avoided abolitionist involvement, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 forced choices, and ultimately converted millions of Northerners to the cause of antislavery and to political parties opposed to slavery.” Nathans provides no documentation (none, at least, that I could find) for the claim that “millions” in the North became abolitionists — it was never a widely popular cause in the North and was fiercely opposed by many — but these sentiments were broadly held in the circles in which the Lesleys moved. Walker was warmly welcomed by the Lesleys and their friends, first in Milton and then in Cambridge, places where she “became a full-fledged human being. . . a literate, well-read, handsome mixed-race woman, who did beautiful work as a seamstress and could look after a household as well.”

Since virtually everything we know about Walker is found in letters by the whites who knew and cared for her, we cannot tell how happy she was, but such evidence as exists suggests that, while she cherished her freedom, she knew that she was always at risk of being discovered by bounty hunters, and that in any case the fate of her children left her in a state of uninterrupted fear. After the news of Duncan Cameron’s sudden death reached her in February 1853, she was forced “to confront the fate of her family. What would happen to them? Who would inherit them? Could she — must she — try to reclaim them from bondage? Events would reveal that Mary Walker became a woman obsessed.” From then until the end of the Civil War a dozen years later, she attempted to rescue her children, usually with the active support of the Lesleys and their friends. She tried to buy their freedom, to steal it, to appeal to the better instincts of the surviving Cameron sisters simply to free them.

Nothing worked. An older son, Frank, escaped not long after Cameron’s death and made it to New Jersey. Paul Cameron was determined to capture him but failed to do so. Apparently Frank and his mother never saw each other thereafter. In the spring of 1865, when Union troops under William Tecumseh Sherman seized Raleigh, “a high-ranking officer sought out Mary Walker’s children.” By then Mary’s mother was dead, but the officer “found twenty-five-year-old Agnes Walker and twenty-one-year-old Bryant Walker at the Duncan Cameron mansion in Raleigh. He told them that they were free, that their mother was alive, and that she wanted them to come north. Agnes and Bryant wrote at once. Three months later, both arrived in Cambridge.”

Five years later a friend purchased a modest house at 54 Brattle Street and deeded it to Mary Walker. Not long before, a blacksmith had owned the house, in front of which was “a towering chestnut tree,” i.e., the blacksmith and tree about which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his famous poem “The Village Blacksmith.” The house stands to this day, not merely as a state historic site but as testimony to the extraordinary journey that Walker and her family made from slavery to freedom.


The Journey of Mary Walker

By Sydney Nathans

Harvard Univ. 330 pp. $29.95