Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gateway to Freedom - Review

"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. For anyone who still wonders what was at stake in the Civil War, there is no better place to begin than Gateway to Freedom." -James Oakes, author of Freedom National, winner of the Lincoln Prize

Between 1830 and 1860, operatives of the underground railroad in New York helped more than 3,000 fugitive slaves reach freedom. Their defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law inflamed the slave states and contributed to the secession crisis. In GATEWAYTO FREEDOM: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad [W.W. Norton & Company; January 19, 2015; $26.95 hardcover], Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner gives us a sweeping history of the underground railroad that shows for the first time how strong and active the resistance to slavery was in the North. Long relegated as a subject to local folklore, the underground railroad emerges as a key element in the history of slavery and freedom in the United States.

Foner's story centers on New York City, strongly proslavery at the time, and an abolitionist newspaperman in the city, Sydney Howard Gay, whose courageous undercover work helped save fugitive slaves and fight the epidemic kidnapping of the city's free blacks into slavery. Gay's "Record of Fugitives," a remarkable document that Foner dug up from deep in the Columbia University archives, is a meticulously detailed accounting of the inner workings of the underground railroad in New York City in the 1850s. It records the personal stories of escaped slaves; their stop-by-stop movements from the slave South through the networks of antislavery operatives in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and into New York; the aid given these fugitives in the city; and finally their movements to safety in Albany, Syracuse, and Canada. Gay capped every episode with a detailed accounting of cost – the underground railroad was always strapped for funds.

For Foner, this document was the missing puzzle piece in the broader history of the underground railroad.  It
enabled him to assemble a complete picture of the network of antislavery activists, black and white, prominent and humble, who worked together, at great personal risk, to bring fugitive slaves to freedom along the northeast corridor. Foner's masterful use of this new evidence once again demonstrates his deep knowledge of the period and his ability to make compelling reading of authoritative history.

GATEWAY TO FREEDOM is a vivid history with an amazing cast of characters, many of whom make their first appearance on the historical stage. Foner takes us inside a waterfront boarding house for black sailors where fugitives lay hidden. Their route to freedom depended on a little-known African American furniture polisher, Louis Napoleon, who worked closely with Gay and John Jay II, grandson of the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. Together they smuggled fugitives out of the city and went to court to press for the rights of fugitives in custody. Their dramatic story marks a significant chapter in the ongoing struggle between slavery and freedom, and a stirring testament to individuals' capacity for courage and idealism.

Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. His previous book, The Fiery Trial:Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Lincoln and Bancroft Prizes.

Review by Rachel Salzman

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