It is well known that Boston was a center of the abolitionist movement, and that the northeast provided a lot of help to runaway slaves along the underground railroad, which was a loose network of people and safe houses. A new book from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner sheds new light on how the underground railway was organized and how it operated.
Foner's book, "Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad" includes the dramatic tale of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave in Richmond, Virginia. After his wife and son were sold, a white Massachusetts shoemaker packed Brown into a three-foot long crate and shipped him to Philadelphia by rail and boat. Brown survived the difficult, cramped journey. And with help from others, he made it to New York, Boston, then to New Bedford, where he joined his sister.
His story is one of many that Foner tells, which was based largely on the discovery of a series of records that belonged to Sydney Howard Gay, a journalist from Hingham. Gay became editor of the "National Anti-Slavery Standard" in New York, and left detailed notes from his interviews with some 200 runaway slaves that he helped move further north.
Foner will be giving a three-part lecture series at Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African & African-American studies Feb. 9 until Feb. 11.
- "Our notion of the Underground Railroad, the network that helped spirit fugitive slaves to freedom, has long been a compound of myth and history. The legend, preserved in quilts and spirituals, conjures up Harriet Tubman, the North Star, and dangerous solitary treks under cover of darkness."
- "The slavery exception to otherwise robust support for states’ rights was a recurring feature of antebellum Southern politics. Southerners wrote into the Constitution a clause requiring the return of slaves who escaped from one state to another, and in 1793, only four years after George Washington assumed the presidency, they persuaded Congress to enact a law putting that clause into effect."
- "Gay interviewed the fugitives, who numbered well over two hundred men, women, and children and recorded their stories. ... The Record of Fugitives is a treasure trove of information about how and why slaves escaped, who assisted them, and where they were sent from New York."
This segment aired on May 30, 2016.