Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
More than any other scholar, Eric Foner has influenced our understanding of America's history. Now, making brilliant use of extraordinary evidence, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian once again reconfigures the national saga of American slavery and freedom.
A deeply entrenched institution, slavery lived on legally and commercially even in the northern states that had abolished it after the American Revolution. Slaves could be found in the streets of New York well after abolition, traveling with owners doing business with the city's major banks, merchants, and manufacturers. New York was also home to the North's largest free black community, making it a magnet for fugitive slaves seeking refuge. Slave catchers and gangs of kidnappers roamed the city, seizing free blacks, often children, and sending them south to slavery.
To protect fugitives and fight kidnappings, the city's free blacks worked with white abolitionists to organize the New York Vigilance Committee in 1835. In the 1840s vigilance committees proliferated throughout the North and began collaborating to dispatch fugitive slaves from the upper South, Washington, and Baltimore, through Philadelphia and New York, to Albany, Syracuse, and Canada. These networks of antislavery resistance, centered on New York City, became known as the underground railroad. Forced to operate in secrecy by hostile laws, courts, and politicians, the city's underground-railroad agents helped more than 3,000 fugitive slaves reach freedom between 1830 and 1860. Until now, their stories have remained largely unknown, their significance little understood.
Building on fresh evidence--including a detailed record of slave escapes secretly kept by Sydney Howard Gay, one of the key organizers in New York--Foner elevates the underground railroad from folklore to sweeping history. The story is inspiring--full of memorable characters making their first appearance on the historical stage--and significant--the controversy over fugitive slaves inflamed the sectional crisis of the 1850s. It eventually took a civil war to destroy American slavery, but here at last is the story of the courageous effort to fight slavery by "practical abolition," person by person, family by family.
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About the Author
Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of several books. In 2006 he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia University. He has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians. He lives in New York City.
Mandatory, and riveting, reading.--Sam Roberts
[A] detailed narrative . . . infused with the spirit of freedom.--Bruce Watson
Excellent . . . Mr. Foner, bringing to bear his well-honed research skills and his deep knowledge of slavery and race relations . . . vividly describes the key part that New York City played in the operations of the Underground Railroad . . . he merits high praise for contributing sold information and thoughtful analysis to the history of this shadowy, extensive network.--David S. Reynolds
Riveting . . . a visceral chronicle of defiance and sacrifice.--Edward P. Jones
Bring[s] to bear the insights of a long and distinguished career writing about the Civil War and Reconstruction eras and a sharp sense of the ironies that involuntary servitude posed for a nation that proclaimed itself to be built on principles of liberty . . . highly readable.--Michael D. Schaffer
A terrific and powerful story.--Billy Heller
Dramatic and compelling.--David Hugh Smith
Suspense and drama on nearly every page. . . . The art of historical narrative at its very best.--Jonah Raskin
Reminds us that history can be as stirring as the most gripping fiction.--Wendy Smith
Tells a story that will surprise most readers . . . Compelling.--Adam Goodheart
[Foner] carries the reader along, as if galloping through a valley of subterfuge and salvation that might also doom freedom at any time. Foner crucially delineates the profound challenge and existential risk that engulfed an interracial generation as the nation thundered toward dissolution, or Civil War.--Kevin Lynch
Compelling . . . by turns scholarly and gripping.--Alexander Nazaryan
Eric Foner has won a place in the front rank of American historians with books that seem to vacuum up all available sources to produce bold new interpretations of the country's reckoning with the big questions of slavery and freedom.--Jennifer Schuessler