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The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad: An Interview with Eric Foner

In pre-Civil War America, African American slaves escaped bondage for freedom at great personal risk, often with the assistance of sympathetic black and white citizens. This interracial endeavor to aid runaway slaves was referred to as the Underground Railroad, and it infuriated Southern slaveholders who saw it as illegally depriving them of their property rights.

For decades, historians have offered contrasting opinions on the legendary Underground Railroad from exaggerated accounts of an extensive, well-organized network that supported fugitive slaves to a view that no such effort ever existed.

Renowned American historian Eric Foner demystifies and clarifies the story of the Underground Railroad in his new book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (W.W. Norton). His new study is based on extensive archival research, including his unearthing of a detailed record of fugitive slave accounts kept by New York abolitionist journalist Sydney Howard Gay. Gay’s records revealed the human cost of slavery: fugitives fleeing the South reported brutal physical abuse, the ever-present prospect of being sold, and the fear of losing all family ties.

As Professor Foner recounts, New York in the decade before the Civil War was extremely pro-Southern and local officials upheld fugitive slave laws and cooperated in the return of runaway slaves to their owners. Moreover, slave hunters prowled the streets of Manhattan, seizing blacks and selling them or sending them back to the South. And Professor Foner also explains how the activism and resistance of abolitionists and fugitive slaves became a serious irritant in the South and a major cause of the Civil War.

Professor Foner’s book on the Underground Railroad has been praised for its extensive research, deft storytelling, and vivid profiles of fugitive slaves and black and white abolitionists. Historian David W. Blight commented: “Making brilliant use of an extraordinary, little-known document, Foner, with his customary clarity, tells the enlightening story of the thousands of fugitive slaves who journeyed to freedom along the eastern corridor of the United States. Many stories of individual courage illuminate a network of operatives both formal and informal that played a powerful role in causing sectional conflict and the Civil War.” And historian James Oakes wrote: “Gateway to Freedom liberates the history of the underground railroad from the twin plagues of mythology and cynicism. The big picture is here, along with telling details from previously untapped sources. With lucid prose and careful analysis, Eric Foner tells a story that is at once unsparing and inspiring.”

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. In his teaching and scholarship, Foner focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and nineteenth-century America. He has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians. Some of his best-known books include Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, which won the Bancroft, Parkman and Los Angeles Times Book Prizes; and The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, winner, among other awards, of the Bancroft Prize, Pulitzer Prize for History, and The Lincoln Prize for 2011; as well as Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Tom Paine and Revolutionary America; Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy; and Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World.

Professor Foner has also been the co-curator of prize-winning exhibitions on American history: A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln, for the Chicago Historical Society. 
He has won numerous awards for teaching and scholarship, and in 2014 he was awarded the Gold Medal by the National Institute of Social Sciences. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy. He serves on the editorial boards of Past and Present and The Nation, and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, London Review of Books, and many other publications, and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows.

Professor Foner recently talked about his new book by telephone from his office in New York.

Robin Lindley: How did you come to write your new book on the Underground Railroad? I sense there’s a story behind it.

Professor Eric Foner: There is. I allude to it in the acknowledgements. Generally, when I work on a book of history, as with most historians, I think of a historical question, and then what sources I can consult to deal with it.

This book worked the opposite way. Out of serendipity, a student of mine, an undergraduate history major at Columbia who also was employed as our dog walker, one day said she was working on a senior thesis about this abolitionist journalist, Sydney Howard Gay. She was interested in his journalistic career. There’s a very big collection [on Gay in the Columbia Library], and she said, “In Box 72, there’s this “Record of Fugitives.” I’m not sure what it is. It’s not relevant to me, but you might find it interesting with your work on slavery.”

I filed that in the back of my mind. I was working on my Lincoln book then. Eventually, I was up there and said, “Let me look at Box 72.” They brought out two small notebooks, little volumes, in which Sydney Howard Gay for two years, 1855 and 1856, recorded the experiences of over 200 fugitive slaves who passed through New York City. He was very active in the Underground Railroad and was also a journalist, so he was interested in their stories.

This was remarkable.

Robin Lindley: It must have been exciting to first see the Gay material.

Professor Eric Foner: It was. I was astonished when I started reading it. You know, you go through manuscript collections and other sources, and it can be tedious, just turning pages and not finding much. But here you have something I just stumbled upon and, as soon as I began reading it, my eyes popped open and I said this is really remarkable.

I’d never seen any document like this and, moreover, I’d never seen this document quoted or cited anywhere. It was not cataloged in the Columbia Library so there was no way of knowing it was there unless you happened upon it.

It got me interested because there’s very little information on the Underground Railroad in New York City. It was a fairly pro-Southern town and closely connected to the cotton trade and the Southern economy in general. Bankers and merchants were all plugged into the South. It was not an abolitionist center, and there were very few abolitionists in New York.

I got interested in how this guy operated and in the people mentioned [in Gay’s notebooks], so I worked outward from these documents.

I didn’t really know where I was going, but the more research I did, the more I filled in these pieces. I found it to be a very interesting story with all of these human elements of the experiences of 200 or so fugitive slaves.

It began accidentally, but grew into this new book.

Robin Lindley: It seems you’ve uncovered a great deal of previously unpublished details on the Underground Railroad. You also correct some popular misconceptions about the Underground Railroad. What are a few things you’ve learned and you’d like people to know about the Underground Railroad?

Professor Eric Foner: Everybody has heard the name of the Underground Railroad. There are a number of misconceptions. People generally have an exaggerated view of it: that it was a totally organized system with regularized routes and agents and set station houses. They almost take the railroad metaphor literally. It wasn’t like that at all.

On the other hand, there’s an opposite view, which has been prominent that it didn’t exist at all. Partly, this is the result of some historians’ emphasis on the “agency” of African Americans, as they call it, which is very important. [They say] it’s well known that slaves escaped on their own without help and the whole thing was a myth. That’s not true either.

There are two things I’d like people to recognize about the Underground Railroad from the book. One is that it was not a highly organized system. I call it a set of interconnected local networks. Small groups of people in different communities did help fugitive slaves and they communicated with one another. Their fortunes rose and fell. The Philadelphia Committee went out of existence for about seven or eight years, and then it came back and was very active. It involved a small number of people. In New York there were no more than a dozen people actively involved at any one time in the 30 years or so before the Civil War.

On the other hand, it’s important to recognize that they accomplished a great deal. Nobody knows how many [slaves escaped bondage]. I wouldn’t even begin to venture a number, but many thousands of slaves were able to get out of slavery with the assistance of what we call the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad is a metaphor. It shouldn’t be seen as a tight organization. It’s a metaphor for these loosely connected, local groups that operated in an effective way, especially in the 1850s when they were at their most active.

Robin Lindley: You also stress the cooperation between free and formerly enslaved blacks and white abolitionists. There may be an impression that white abolitionists drove this effort with the help of a few blacks such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. You emphasize the critical role of African Americans.

Professor Eric Foner: That is true. There is a popular view of the abolitionist movement as white Americans helping out downtrodden slaves. That’s fair enough as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

What struck me is that the Underground Railroad was a good example of interracial cooperation. There were prominent white people involved in every place, but most of the day-to-day activity was done by blacks, many of whom are anonymous and not known to history.

I tried to bring to life a few individuals like Louis Napoleon, an interesting man who was very active in New York. He worked in the office of the National Anti-Slavery Standard. He scoured the docks and looked for fugitives who had hidden in ships or came in by railroad at the depot. Even though he was illiterate and he signed with an “x,” he managed to go to court and get writs of habeas corpus for fugitive slaves. He was involved in legal cases. He was remarkable, and I had never heard of him, and I think most scholars had never heard of Louis Napoleon. I tried to bring a few people like that to life who are little known but very active in this story.

Robin Lindley: You mention the iconic Harriet Tubman who’s so prominent in the popular view of the Underground Railroad. What did you learn about her?

Professor Eric Foner: I was quite taken when I was reading this [Gay] document, and Harriet Tubman pops up twice in the Record of Fugitive. She led groups of fugitive slaves that came through New York City. They stopped at Sydney Howard Gay’s office. He wrote down his interviews with them on their experiences.

Tubman was unique. She escaped from Maryland around 1850 and then she went back several times in the 1850s, and it’s estimated that she brought out 70 to 80 slaves. Nobody else did that quite like that. There were people who went back once to get a wife or brother or child out, but Harriet Tubman was a very remarkable person and very courageous obviously, going back again and again and again, placing herself in tremendous danger.

She symbolizes the Underground Railroad, but it’s important to know that most slaves who got out did not have assistance from anybody like Harriet Tubman or anybody else. They got out of the South mostly on their own. There were a few people in the South who could assist them once they came in contact with them. Once they reached the North, Pennsylvania or Wilmington, Delaware, they began to connect with networks. But most slaves did it on their own or with the help of some local people but not with the help of someone like Harriet Tubman who came to lead them out of slavery.

Robin Lindley: You have fascinating stories of the creativity some of the fugitive slaves exhibited in making their escapes, such as Henry “Box” Brown.

Professor Eric Foner: Yes, absolutely. That’s another thing that I tried to show. Our image of fugitive slave tends to be the lone person running through the woods, hiding during the day, running at night. There were certainly people like that, but people used all sorts of methods of escape and there was a great deal of ingenuity. Brown got himself shipped in a crate. People also stole their masters’ horse-drawn carriages and just took off. And some people somehow got boats.

I was also struck by the fact that many of these people escaped in groups, not just as a lone person. There were many small groups—three, four or five people and some even larger—usually family members who got out together. And there were large numbers who got out on ships. The coastal trade was enormous and thousands of ships plied the Atlantic coast. And plenty of captains were willing to take money to hide a fugitive slave or two on their boats. A lot of people got out that way.

And also [people got out] on the railroad, where the Underground Railroad could be taken literally. Quite a few people, including Frederick Douglass in 1838, just got on a train and escaped. That wasn’t so simple. The trains were observed by police, but if you had a forged pass or something, you could do it. That was a lot simpler. You could get to the North a lot quicker by train than by wandering in the woods.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for sharing those remarkable stories and introducing them in your book.

Professor Eric Foner: The thing that really struck me about the [Gay] document is its human quality. The names of people and often, in parentheses, their new name because many of them, for obvious reasons, changed their names when they got to the North. And then their individual stories.

Most of these people are lost to history. I don’t know what happened to them after they got out. Some got to Canada or upstate New York. A few of them pop up in the census in Canada in 1861. But most are anonymous in history, yet in this Sydney Howard Gay document, you have snapshots of their life stories.

Robin Lindley: And I think many readers may be surprised by New York City’s strong connection to the South and the racism of the city. You mention that the mayor of New York and business leaders supported a compromise with the South in 1861 when war broke out.

Professor Eric Foner: They certainly were for a compromise and the mayor proposed that New York secede—not to join the Confederacy but to become a free port so they could trade North and South. Then, of course, there were the New York City draft riots in 1863 [resulting in the murder of dozens of black citizens].

Over 70 years ago, my uncle Philip S. Foner, wrote an important book called Business and Slavery about the New York merchants and their ties with the South. He laid out how many of the major merchants in New York were plugged into the cotton trade and how many white Southerners came to New York to vacation and to do business. Thousands of Southerners were on the streets of New York City much of the year, and often they brought their slaves to stay with them in their houses and hotels, even though hotels wouldn’t let free blacks in. So there was a real Southern tinge to New York City, which was different than upstate New York: Syracuse, Albany, those places.

So the abolitionist movement in New York City was very weak and very small. The Underground Railroad operated at great disadvantages in New York City.

Robin Lindley: It’s striking the contrast of New York City and Boston, a center of abolitionism.

Professor Eric Foner: Absolutely, though Boston also had cotton manufacturers who were tied to the South. But the abolitionist movement up there was much stronger.

Robin Lindley: It’s complicated, but can you give a sense of the legal framework at the time of the Underground Railroad. Of course, slaves were property and there was a “fugitive slave” provision in the Constitution and then Fugitive Slave Acts requiring the capture and return of slaves to their owners.

Professor Eric Foner: The legal situation is complicated and murky. The Constitution has a “fugitive slave” clause. It’s very vague. It doesn’t mention slaves or slavery, but provides that a person who is held to labor and escapes must be returned. It doesn’t say who is responsible for returning them—the federal government? State government? It doesn’t say what legal procedures need to be followed to return someone to slavery. And those issues became major points of debate.

Northern states recognized the responsibility to return fugitive slaves, but many began to pass so-called “personal liberty laws” like requiring a trial by jury to determine if a person is really a slave or not, or to limit the way public officials like sheriffs and others could cooperate in the apprehension of fugitive slaves. They begin to nullify the fugitive slave clause, and eventually that leads the South to demand and get the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which federalizes the fugitive slave issues. No longer would state procedures be used. They set up a system of federal commissioners. Federal marshals could be involved if necessary. The Army could be sent in to remove the fugitive slave and bring him back to the South. That happened in Boston in the Anthony Burns case of 1854.

The Fugitive Slave law overrode all local procedures. The odd thing about the law when we think of the South as the bastion of states’ rights, this was a complete abrogation of the rights of the states. The South was in favor of slavery, not of states’ rights. When states’ rights was a bulwark of slavery, which it frequently was, they went for states’ rights. If a powerful federal intervention was necessary to defend slavery, they were in favor of a powerful federal government. So the Constitutional arguments were instrumental. In other words, [the South favored] whatever was the mode of legal thinking protected the institution of slavery, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was probably the most vigorous exercise of the power of the federal government within the existing states of almost any law I can think of before the Civil War. Because of that, it created a lot of alarm and opposition in the North.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for explaining the use of law to defend slavery. Lincoln alluded to the Underground Railroad in his first inaugural address. He mentioned that fugitives should be returned and the Fugitive Slave Act was enforced through 1861.

Professor Eric Foner: Yes, it was enforced in the North, and particularly with slaves that ran away with the Union Army. At the very beginning, the Army returned them, but that fell apart very fast.

Lincoln was a lawyer and a Constitutionalist, and he believed in the rule of law. In a famous letter of his from 1855 to his friend Joshua Speed he talks about how he hates to see fugitive slaves hunted down, “but I bite my lip and keep silent.” Why does he keep silent? Because this is the law and he believes in the rule of law. And he believes that even an unjust law must be obeyed until it is [changed]. He never calls for repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, but he calls for modification of it to protect the rights of those accused so that a free man is not caught up in this and inadvertently sent into slavery, which could and did happen.

The fugitive slave issue is not the big issue for Lincoln. The big issue for him is the westward expansion of slavery. In the secession crisis, Lincoln says he will not compromise on the westward expansion of slavery but he is willing to compromise on fugitive slaves.
That’s where Lincoln differs from abolitionists. For abolitionists, the fugitive slave law is completely immoral and should not be obeyed. They believe, as William Seward said, that there is a higher law, a law of morality and of religion, and where there’s a conflict between the higher law and the manmade law, you follow the higher law. Lincoln didn’t believe that.

Robin Lindley: And you found that most of the fugitive slaves came from the northern slave states and not the Deep South.

Professor Eric Foner: It’s a long way from a place like Alabama to the North. But in Maryland, where most of them came from, you are just a few miles to 50 or 100 miles from the North. So it was a lot easier to get out of Maryland. Moreover, half of the black population of Maryland was free by the late pre-Civil War period. So black people on their own on the roads and on the trains were a common sight in Maryland. You still needed a pass proving you were free, but plenty of blacks were traveling whereas there were few free blacks traveling in the Deep South states, so you were more likely to arouse suspicion if you were a black person off the plantation in the Deep South than in Maryland.

Robin Lindley: I think some people don’t recognize that Maryland was a slave state.

Professor Eric Foner: That’s possibly true. And Kentucky. I read an article in a newspaper about something in Kentucky. It’s a different point, but displays lack of historical knowledge. It said Kentucky was a part of the Confederacy. Well, it wasn’t. It was a slave state but it wasn’t part of the Confederacy. Unfortunately, that’s a sign of how journalists may not be as knowledgeable about our history as they perhaps ought to be.

Robin Lindley: Did you find much information on a “reverse Underground railroad.” An example was a house in southern Illinois that became a sort of station where captured fugitive slaves would be sent back to slave owners.

Professor Eric Foner: In the 1820s and 1830s in New York, there was a group of kidnappers who would kidnap blacks and put them on a ship and send them down South and sell them into slavery. People may be more aware of this now because of the movie about Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave. But he was just one of many, particularly younger kids who would be grabbed off the street and taken South to be sold. That was a reverse Underground Railroad going the wrong direction. It was fairly prominent until the 1840s when it began to be suppressed.

Robin Lindley: Your book vividly shows the human face of slavery and the abuse and barbarity of the institution.

Professor Eric Foner: Thank you. Sydney Howard Gay was a journalist and he liked to get someone’s story, so he interviewed them [fugitive slaves] and got their experiences. In this document you hear the voice of the fugitive slave indirectly, through Sydney Howard Gay, but this is contemporaneous. A lot of what we know about fugitive slaves comes from reminiscences much later. For historians, reminiscences are valuable and suspect at the same time. But here you have it at the contemporaneous moment and you have all of these vivid human stories, which include physical abuse, but also acts of amazing ingenuity and courage in getting out of the South.

Robin Lindley: And a Southern doctor found the desire of slaves to escape bondage was caused by a disease he called “drapetomania.”

Professor Eric Foner: Yes, that was Dr. [Samuel A.] Cartwright with that diagnosis. It was a disease making black people want to escape. After all, since slavery was so pleasant and fine, why should they want to escape? There must be something wrong with them.

Robin Lindley: You conclude that the fugitive slave issue was a major cause of the Civil War.

Professor Eric Foner: As I said, this book expanded outward. I started with a local document, but following the paths led me to the South and to other Northern cities and eventually to the federal government and the impact of the fugitive slave issue on pre-Civil War politics.

This issue did not cause the Civil War by itself obviously, but it was one of the catalysts. Southern complaints about the difficulty in getting fugitive slaves back from the North became louder and more strident as the Underground Railroad became more effective in the 1850s. As I point out, in South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Causes of Secession” in 1860, the longest paragraph is about fugitive slaves; it’s not about the westward expansion of slavery or states’ rights or the tariff. It’s about fugitive slaves, although few fugitive slaves escaped to the North from South Carolina. It was just too far to get to the North from South Carolina.