Thoughts on Eric Foner’s
Gateway to Freedom
As I write these words, having just put my two small children to bed, I think about the privilege that my little family and I have of simply being together, safely, with shelter, without fear of being separated from each other. Less than twenty yards from where I type these words–in the warm and loving comfort of our home–begins the backside of Guilford Forest, a wide sheltering space used during the 19th century by fugitive slaves to find safety, at least temporarily, in what was the southern terminus of the Underground Railroad.
It is with the background of the trees that cast their shadows under the moonlit sky behind me that I think about the ways in which we, as people, have connected with each other during some of the most difficult times, under some of the most difficult circumstances, and over some of the greatest distances. One of those times was the mid-19th century when legalized slavery existed in the nation and nearly four million African Americans were enslaved across the land. How people connected with each other to survive enslavement, escaped it, or worked together with others to undermine it, is a story of epic proportions.
While there have been many books written about the Underground Railroad and its great abolitionist heroes and heroines–Maryland’s Harriet Tubman, North Carolina’s Levi Coffin, and New York’s Jermain Loguen, among others far more courageous than I can only begin to imagine–the discovery of a new primary source, a manuscript entitled “Record of Fugitives,” a first-hand account of events in 1855 and 1856 by the New York City-based journalist and railroad operative Sydney Howard Gay, offers critical new insight.
As Foner notes in an excellent interview on NPR much of the information we have about the Underground Railroad (specifically, the Eastern Underground Railroad) comes from accounts that took place decades after the events–by which time many details were forgotten and possible embellishments were infused into memoirs. By contrast, Gay’s document gives us the voices of the men and women who came through his office and described in detail the things they had just been through, the people they met, and who they were themselves.
There is much to be said about the rich and evocative history that Foner presents to us–the ways in which people escaped by carriage, by boat, by foot, and sometimes by train, under the most difficult conditions, the important role of the New York Vigilance Committee in helping fugitive slaves in the 1830s, the fears and joys that people expressed about their journeys, such as the elation of Henry “Box” Brown upon his dramatic emergence from the wooden crate he had daringly placed himself into, and the tenacity of both those who escaped and those who helped them escape, from black sailors and dockworkers to white Quakers and other anti-slavery activists.
In reading this book, I feel close to all of these extraordinary women and men, to Professor Foner, Emiline Chaplin and her children, and to the great woods that connect me to all of us.
—Dr. Omar Ali was recently appointed the Interim Dean of the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He serves on the Board of Directors of IndependentVoting.org.