Magazine article The Christian Century

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

Magazine article The Christian Century

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

Article excerpt

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

By Eric Foner

W. W. Norton, 320 pp., $26.95


Demons harassed novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. At least that's how one artist of the 1850s caricatured the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In that visual assault on the "little woman" who Abraham Lincoln supposedly said "wrote the book that made this great war," an army of devils have invaded the world to put an end to her wickedness. One grabs her left hand. Another stabs her rear end with a pitchfork. Yet another latches onto her body from behind, while serpents coil around her feet. Behind Stowe is a large cavern labeled with the words "Under Ground Railway." It is unclear whether the devils are pulling her from the darkness or endeavoring to shove her into it.

By the middle of the 1850s, when Stowe's novel rocked the United States, the Underground Railroad was a whispered dream among people called slaves and a feared possibility to people called masters. It was discussed in newspapers and magazines. Some politicians berated it; others applauded it. There was even a popular song named after it. Eric Foner resurrects the history of the Underground Railroad, its powerful place in New York City, and how it helped Stowe and others bring about the titanic war that ended chattel slavery.

The institution of slavery had vexed the nation since its political and military inception in the 1770s. From the 1830s to the 1850s, the rising number of enslaved runaways and the escalated activities of abolitionists drove a wedge into American society. Free northern African Americans and their white allies opposed slavery in law and practice, and some of them participated in what they called "practical abolition," which meant secrecy, illegality, and danger. Working with and for the Underground Railroad meant meeting in the streets to protest the recapture of alleged runaways, and it meant hiding people and the documentation of their movements.

Foner positions New York City as a key terminal on the Underground Railroad and emphasizes the heroism of a handful of individuals there. He weaves together the long history of slavery and resistance in the United States and the social ruptures slavery wrought in New York, a city economically tied to cotton production. Foner underscores how operatives for the Underground Railroad participated in a wide array of antislavery activities. These included not only hiding and shuttling individuals, but also defending fugitives in court, tirelessly raising funds for the campaign, and publishing accounts of fugitives' experiences.

The heart and soul of Gateway to Freedom is an account book kept by Sydney Howard Gay, the editor of an antislavery newspaper. Gay recorded short accounts of more than 200 runaways a few years after the publication of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Some short and some long, the accounts detail the ages of runaways, their work lives, and their methods of escape. In one, he listed Harriet Tubman as "Captain Harriet Tubman."

Most readers of American history are probably familiar with Foner. …

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