Readers Forum–June Hirsh

When I first began reading Gateway To Freedom, I was struck by many historical facts that were little known to me, which debunked assumptions I had, in particular, New York City’s role in the experience of fugitive slaves and the leadership role played by fugitive slaves in concert with the Underground Railroad (UR) that was the “gateway to freedom” for millions of slaves.

Gateway To Freedom brought to mind Isabel Wilkerson’s phenomenal book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which was an earlier P4P Book Club choice.  Like Wilkerson’s book, which showed how the migration of six million blacks who left the Jim Crow South from the 1920’s to the 1960’s planted the seeds for the nascent Civil Rights movement, in Foner’s account the UR and the fugitive slave movement set the stage for the Civil War and the end of institutionalized slavery in the US. They each carried out heroic acts that aided immediate survival and reflected dreams of living life with dignity, playing seminal roles in future efforts to end slavery and fuel the Civil rights movement.

Independent Voting activists Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (r) at the National Conference of Independents, March 2015
Independent Voting activists Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (r) at the National Conference of Independents, March 2015

Foner’s compelling narrative has changed my understanding of the UR. Both the historical content and his beautiful writing style transport me, giving me new ways of seeing an enormously significant, painful and heroic piece of American history that I had not fully imagined or appreciated.

Looking back I realized that the very first sentence of this book “The 19th century’s most celebrated Black American tasted freedom on September 4th, 1838 when he arrived in NYC as a 19 year old fugitive slave” did not stay with me as I proceeded on. This Black American’s name was Frederick Bailey.  Upon arriving in NYC a free man, he changed his surname to Johnson. When he subsequently realized that enormous numbers of Blacks took the last name Johnson, he chose once again what was to become his final surname – Douglass.  “The 19th century’s most celebrated Black American” as it turned out was Frederick Douglass – even retelling this now gives me goose bumps. Douglass spoke of fugitive slaves as “freedom’s swift winged angels” and said that “knowledge was the pathway from slavery to freedom”.

Foner re-visits and debunks another popular myth about the UR. It was not a formal institution but in fact a network of abolitionist groups – sparse in some areas, in others highly organized. Although in some cases it did aid dramatic escapes, the UR was primarily focused on assisting fugitive slaves who had already escaped from their bondage and reached the north on their own. Many fugitive slaves developed detailed plans of escape, at times were captured, escaping again and again. Many had friends and relatives waiting for them and had arranged jobs in different cities, in Canada and elsewhere.

A number of eastern newspapers labeled abolitionists and fugitive slaves as “dens of negro thieves and fugitive protectors”.  Southern papers wrote that associations of abolitionists “first business is to steal or cause to be stolen, seduced or inveigled, slaves from southern plantations; to steal him from an indulgent master – to carry him to a cold, strange and uncongenial country and there leave him to starve, freeze and die in glorious freedom.” The same periodicals even proclaimed that slaves “escaped” and fled back to their plantations and masters. The outrageousness of these claims was exposed by slaves themselves who at great risk to their lives and newfound freedom, spoke eloquently and forcefully at public meetings of UR supporters and potential donors, even baring their physical scars.

Between 1830 -1860, 1000-5000 slaves escaped slavery per year. In fact, this was not a substantial number given that by 1860 the US slave population was 4 million.

Not long after escaping to NYC, Frederick Douglass was urged by abolitionists to leave. Unlike upstate NY, New England and parts of the Midwest where the anti-slavery movement flourished, NYC was not a safe place for fugitive slaves. A port city, it had economic ties to the cotton industry and to the slave south. Especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, few blacks could safely remain.  This law created an environment where fugitive slaves were more easily rounded up, and sold back to their former slave owners. This law also led to an epidemic of the abduction of the children of Free Blacks. Kidnapped right off of the streets of NYC and other states with southern ties, they were sold into southern slavery – never to be seen by their families again. Pro-slavery circles saw this as a necessary business venture. A NYC abolitionist named Ruggles was a prime mover in the NYC Committee of Vigilance that was founded solely to combat this epidemic of child kidnapping.

Organized slavery did not come to an end in NY until 1827.  Following the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act thousands of Black Northerners fled to Canada. Ironically this was the same period when thousands of immigrants entered the US via NYC to escape religious and political persecution and seek economic opportunity – their gateway to freedom. This heinous and draconian law exposed the lie of the US as an asylum for those denied liberty in other countries. Following its enactment Northerner’s with no ties to the UR were forced to face and question the relationship between their conscience and obligations to the law. Many, even those who hated slavery, felt they must respect the law and override sympathy for fugitives.

Foner shares a telling quote of Abraham Lincoln as an example.  Lincoln hated “to see the poor creatures hunted down” but out of reverence for the rule of law “I bite my lip and keep quiet.” Later, in 1861, Lincoln devoted a portion of his first Inaugural address to the question of fugitive slaves and proposed changes in federal law that would secure greater legal rights for accused runaways. The fugitive slave issue, the crucial leadership role that fugitive slaves and free Blacks played, the Abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, all played key parts in leading Americans to face the moral and economic issues of slavery and opening the door to the Civil War.

As an organizer who has been immersed for many years in building a national grass roots movement of independents for political reform ( I’m moved by the many past organizations, movements, and courageous individuals who fought to end slavery, for civil rights, human rights, for fairness and democracy; for the rights of all people to live in dignity.

I particularly appreciate Foner’s focus on a crucial aspect – base building. He highlights a significant activity of the UR. It carried out the unglamorous day to day grass roots organizing; fundraising, political and legal actions, writing, lecturing, not always underground – sometimes organizing in full view. As a matter of historical fact, says Foner, the UR’s strategic perspective was devoted to bringing about the end of slavery – rather than assisting fugitive slaves, and by its work, created a basis for organized resistance.

The ways in which Eric Foner has laid the groundwork to share this history is a measure of how his book continues to impact me. I’m glad to offer some of my initial impressions. I’m excited to hear from other P4P Book Club readers and of course, I look forward to our conversation with Eric Foner, led by Cathy Stewart.

June Hirsh is an organizer with  She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.


Politics for the People Conference Call

with Eric Foner

Sunday, April 19th at 7 pm EST

Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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