Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery

Article excerpt

Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery. By R. J. M. Blackett. Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. [xiv], 122. $27.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-0877-8.)

R. J. M. Blackett's Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery takes the reader into the region where combatants, black and white, enslaved and free, waged an intense battle over enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. In this slim but prodigiously researched book, which grew out of the Brose Lectures given at Pennsylvania State University in 2012, the primary war zone is the borderland of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Before and after 1850, enslaved blacks fled to southeastern Pennsylvania cities, towns, and hamlets, where they found assistance from members of the Underground Railroad and refuge in free black communities. The law of September 1850 unleashed turmoil. Slave owners and slave catchers, kidnappers and mercenaries, moved to lay claim to blacks, fugitives and free, and to demand white assistance or acquiescence in reclaiming their property.

One of Blackett's goals is to vividly highlight how blacks themselves forced the issue of compliance or defiance of the 1850 law. He explores the motives and methods of ingenious slaves such as Virginian Henry Banks, who escaped bondage and kept a slew of trackers off his trail, of the secret ways of bondpeople and free blacks who helped others flee, of the role and even greater fear of the Underground Railroad, and of outside "subversives" in enticing and aiding black escapes (p. 4). Through mining newspapers, diaries, and Treasury accounts, Blackett's particular achievement is to illustrate how the conflict unfolded in a single local community, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. After the 1850 law, Harrisburg became a major target for those sent to capture blacks who allegedly had escaped slavery, sometimes years or even decades before. …

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