The current book selection of the Cathy L. Stewart Politics for the People Book Club is Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom, The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. The book is a fascinating look at the antislavery movement in New York City from the colonial era to the eve of the Civil War.
Sunday night as I made calls to let people know about the book and our April 19th conference call with the author I was really inspired that almost everyone I spoke to from Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania proudly told me of a stop on the Underground Railroad in their state or nearby town. To quote Foner “At a time of renewed national attention to the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, subjects that remain in many ways contentious, the underground railroad represents a moment in our history when black and white Americans worked together in a just cause.” (Page 15)
The book includes information from a newly discovered historical document: the detailed records of the abolitionist editor Sydney Howard Gay who helped fugitive slaves reach freedom in New England and Canada. Gay’s Record of Fugitives, which he kept in 1855 and 1856, was discovered by an undergraduate history major, Madeline Lewis, as she was looking through Gay’s papers held at Columbia University. The discovery of Gay’s notebook has opened up the previously unknown history of the work of the Underground Railroad in New York City.
One of the most important movements that helped to undermine slavery, of which many powerful examples are given in the book, was that of slaves who were determined to be free and ran away. The renditions (recapture) of fugitive slaves in the North (which many violently opposed) raised serious questions about the extent to which the laws of slave states “extended” into the North and the relationship of the Constitution and the Federal Government to slavery.
“But the actions of fugitive slaves exemplified the political importance of slave resistance as a whole and raised questions central to antebellum politics, understood not simply as electoral campaigns but as the contest over slavery in the broad public sphere.” (Page 22)
The existence of the Underground Railroad and the escape of more and more slaves, which was more possible from the southern states immediately bordering the North, exacerbated growing sectional tensions that increased with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 and eventually led to the Civil War.
“…Gay’s record makes clear that by the 1850s New York had become a key site in a well-organized system whereby escaping slaves who reached Philadelphia from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia were forwarded to Gay’s office and then dispatched to underground railroad operatives in Albany, Boston, and Canada.” (Page 10)
The long battle against slavery and the participation of ordinary people is fundamental to how our democracy was build. The struggle for full voting rights in America is steeped in the history of the fight for freedom in America. Gateway to Freedom is a wonderful immersion into this history.
–Dr. Jessie Fields
Politics for the People Conference Call
with Eric Foner
Sunday, April 19th at 7 pm EST