Eric Foner talking:
“gateway to freedom” is sort of a term I use for New York City, because these networks, particularly on the eastern corridor here, of local groups assisting fugitive slaves, New York City was a key point there, because once slaves reached New York City, they were quickly sent up to New England or to upstate New York or Canada. So, really, this was the point from which they would be very close to freedom. I also use that title, although nobody realized it, in a slightly ironic sense, because that’s how we think of New York. You know, as a New Yorker, we think of ourselves—the Statue of Liberty is over here—as a place that people come seeking liberty, seeking better opportunity than they have somewhere else. But, in fact, here, you have the opposite. You have people having to flee New York, having to flee the United States, in order to achieve freedom. So, in a way, it’s a kind of—it’s a different kind of gateway than we normally think about. You have to leave to get freedom, not enter the United States.
this Record of Fugitives that Sydney Howard Gay compiled.
this was pointed out to me by an undergraduate student a few years ago. I give her credit. She was doing her senior thesis about Gay’s journalistic career. And she said, “You know, Professor, the Gay papers are up in the Columbia Library, 80 boxes of them.” And she said, “You know, in box 72, there’s this document about fugitive slaves. It’s not really relevant for me, but you might find it interesting.” So I went up there one day. I said, “Give me box 72.”
And it’s really just two notebooks, and not that impressive-looking. But when I started looking through them, as you mentioned, they have these very detailed accounts about fugitive slaves. Gay’s a journalist. He interviews them. So you really get the stories of these people in their own words, which is quite unusual. Most of what we know about fugitive slaves is from reminiscences long after the event, and sometimes memory can play tricks on you. But here—and these are anonymous people; most of them just disappear from the historical record once they leave New York and get up to Syracuse and Canada. But I had never seen a document like this before. And I sort of started working outwards from it to try to track down who they were, who their owners were, who helped them. And eventually this book came out of that.
I had never heard of Louis Napoleon until I saw his name in the Record of Fugitives, which pops up all over the place in that document, because, you know, Gay’s office, this newspaper office, was also an outpost of the underground railroad. Napoleon was a free black man who worked as a kind of a janitor, a porter, in that building. But his real job was scouring the docks and the streets and the railroad terminals looking for fugitive slaves. He was the guy on the streets in the mid-1850s who would look for fugitives and bring them to Gay’s office. He was illiterate. There were documents in there signed by an X by him. But he was able to go to court and get writs of habeas corpus to—if someone was seized by slave catchers, he’d try to get them into court, you know, so maybe a judge could help them out. So, he’s a remarkable guy. And it’s just, you know, through this document, you get a bit of a sense of his activities. And Gay and Napoleon illustrate an important thing about the underground railroad. It was an interracial movement, black and white people working together in a common cause, which now, 150 years later, is kind of inspiring still.
David Ruggles editor of the Mirror of Liberty, is a generation earlier. You might almost say that Ruggles is the founder of the underground railroad, because in 1835 he founded what was called the New York Vigilance Committee. Now, you know, fugitive slaves had escaped ever since there was slavery, but this is the first organized effort to help them. Otherwise—you know, previously, individuals had helped a fugitive slave, but there was no organization to do that. And the Vigilance Committee lasted all the way up to the Civil War in New York City. It’s sort of the second outpost. There’s Gay and his group, and then the Vigilance Committee. Ruggles left New York City in 1841, but he really was key in getting this whole process going.
And, by the way, his house is still standing, one of the few—you know, mostly we tear things down in New York, but Ruggles’ house on Lispenard Street is still there. It’s an independent coffee shop in downtown Manhattan.
it has a little plaque, and it’s still there. And that’s where—you know, Frederick Douglass came to Ruggles’ house in 1838 when he got to New York from Maryland. So, Ruggles played a very important role in getting this whole process going.
all these people changed their names. One of the things that’s interesting in the Gay thing is he’d give the name and then, in parenthesis, their new name, because, you know, to avoid capture, they changed their names. And, yeah, Ruggles told Douglass, “You’ve got to change your name to avoid capture.” And he did it twice. First he was Frederick Bailey, then he became Frederick Johnson. When he got to New Bedford, Mass., where Ruggles sent him, he said, “Hey, every other black family here is named Johnson, so I better find another name,” and then he decided to call himself Frederick Douglass. And that’s, of course, how we know him.
Ruggles was a very militant guy. He would go in—he went into a house in Brooklyn where—you know, there were many slave owners who came up to New York City with their slaves. You know, New York had very close economic ties to the South, the cotton trade, all that. And people would come, and even after slavery is abolished in New York state, there’s still slaves on the streets. Ruggles goes into someone’s house in Brooklyn and says, “These slaves are free. You don’t have a right to bring them into New York anymore.” And there’s a whole altercation. He does get one out to become free. He challenges ship captains. He goes to the docks. So he’s a very militant guy.
those who saw the movie 12 Years a Slave a couple years ago, you know, that’s about a free black man who was kidnapped, really, from upstate New York. There was a lot of kidnapping of free blacks in New York City and in Philadelphia, mostly children. There were these gangs that would just grab someone off the street, take him to a boat and ship him to the South for sale. Or they would take them to Richard Riker. He was a judicial officer called the recorder. And they would kidnap someone and say, “This guy’s a fugitive slave.” And they’d bring him to Riker, and Riker would just issue an order—”Yeah, he’s a fugitive slave. Back to the South”—even though the guy was born free. And this is why the Vigilance Committee was founded in the first place, to combat kidnapping. And it very quickly then turned into helping fugitive slaves. But, you know, New York was full of slave catchers. It was a dangerous place for fugitive slaves.
this was not uncommon, particularly in the 1820s and ’30s. By a little later, because of the Vigilance Committee, because the free black community became more and more mobilized against kidnapping, it tended to diminish by the 1840s and ’50s. But this was certainly a, you know, known process to black people in New York.
From the book:
this about Henry Brown, who, as you’ll see in a minute, becomes known as Henry “Box” Brown.
“Equally dramatic was the tale of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, a skilled tobacco processor in Richmond whose wife and children, the property of a different owner, were suddenly sold to a Methodist minister in North Carolina … With his family gone, Brown devised a plan to have himself shipped north in a crate”—sort of like UPS, or whatever it was back then. “In March 1849, Samuel ‘Red Boot’ Smith, a Massachusetts-born white shoemaker, packed Brown into a rectangular box ‘even too small for a coffin’ (it measured only three feet long) and dispatched him by rail and steamboat to Philadelphia. … Upon Brown’s arrival, after a trip of more than 250 miles that took nearly twenty-four hours, [Miller] McKim [an abolitionist] tapped on the crate, asking, ‘All right?’ ‘All right, sir,’ came the reply. The lid was removed, and out stepped Brown, [quote] ‘with a face radiant with joy.’ ‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ he exclaimed, and launched into a ‘hymn of praise.'”
And then Brown is quickly sent to New York, and then to Massachusetts. But, you know, you could not be safe in the North even after you escaped, because there were slave catchers around. So Brown eventually goes to England, where he spends the 1850s, and he becomes a sort of anti-slavery lecturer. But, of course, his exploit makes him a very celebrated figure.
there were four million slaves in 1860. So even though maybe a thousand a year escaped, from the whole South, I’m talking about, in the 30 years before the Civil War, that’s not destroying the system of slavery. But this issue of fugitive slaves became a major catalyst of the sectional conflict. Remember, it’s in the Constitution that Southerners have a right to get their fugitive slaves back. And then in 1850, the federal government passes this very severe law where federal troops, federal marshals, federal judges are, you know, invoked in order to get fugitive slaves back from the North. But this just leads to resistance in the North. And so, in the 1850s, the South is more and more alarmed about the growing number of fugitives and the growing efforts in the North really to violate—I mean, this is a good example of civil disobedience. There’s a long tradition of that in American history. What do you do when confronted with an unjust law? More and more people in the North are willing to violate the law to assist fugitive slaves on a humanitarian basis. But that then becomes a major political issue between North and South.
the problem is that if you look at the Fugitive Slave Law, that was probably the most extreme example of federal—of the federal government intervening in the states and overriding state laws, local laws, local procedures. It invalidated all sorts of laws in the North, let’s say, trying to give a jury trial to an escaped slave—excuse me. And so, no, the South did not believe in states’ rights. It believed in slavery. States’ rights was a major defense of slavery, because—as a way of preventing Northern interference. But when it came to using the federal government to protect and defend slavery, they were perfectly happy to do that. No, and slavery was not dying out. It was definitely not dying out. Slavery was growing. It was expanding. It was wealthy. There was no peaceful scenario at hand in 1860, ’61, for the abolition of slavery.
the enormous dependence of a lot of the industry and commerce of the North on slavery. New York City was a perfect example of that. You know, New York City was like a little microcosm of the national conflict. You had this underground railroad. You had a militant free black community. And yet, you also had merchants, bankers, insurance companies, ship builders, all of whose economic livelihood was tied into the South. So, New York had a very—they had the underground railroad; they also had a group of merchants, the Union Safety Committee, which was devoted to capturing and sending back fugitive slaves—both of them operating at the same time. So the city just exemplified this national division.
Nobody knows exactly where the “underground railroad” that term originated. I guess “underground” suggests, you know, secret or private or something like that. Nobody knows where that term came from. But certainly by the 1840s, it was in very widespread use, just for people who were helping fugitive slaves. But we should not think of it like literally like a railroad. Sometimes people think, oh, there were these set routes and fixed stations. No, it wasn’t like that. It was much more haphazard. It was much more ad hoc. There were local groups in different places that communicated with each other, but it wasn’t a highly organized system.
You might call it as cells, right, and they rose and fell over time. The Philadelphia Vigilance Committee went out of existence for several years because they just didn’t have any money. So, it wasn’t—you know, sometimes people think this is like a real railroad. But it was a lot more disorganized than that. But what’s amazing is that it did help many fugitive slaves get to freedom in the North and Canada.
the abolitionist movement, like, unfortunately, some other radical movements, was always fighting among itself. In 1840, it split into these two wings, the—it’s too complicated to go into—the Garrison wing and the Lewis Tappan wing. That’s why you had two outposts of the underground railroad in New York City. By the way, they were around the corner from each other, way downtown. They kind of were rivals, but they also cooperated sometime. But, there were differences in tactics. But, you know, even the people deeply involved in the underground railroad were also overground at the same time. They were publishing newspapers. They were holding conventions. They were, sending petitions around. The people operated both legally and, you might say, sub rosa at the same time.
You get that in a lot of the early literature, particularly the reminiscences of white abolitionists well after the Civil War. You get this picture of, you know, courageous white people—which is true, they were courageous—sort of assisting helpless black people. That’s really not right. First of all, to escape from slavery was a courageous act, and it was very, very difficult to do. And the records of fugitives is full of these stories of people’s ingenuity and courage—and good luck, it took also to just get out, because a lot of people were captured who tried to escape.
By the 1850s, they were on trains, they were on boats, they were in carriages. They’re using whatever method they can to get out. But it was—and then most of the people helping them in the North were free black people, free blacks in New York City, in Philadelphia. If you’re escaping in the South, you’re most likely to be helped by other slaves or free blacks, like in Maryland, where there quite a few of them. But there were plenty of white people, too. As I said, it was interracial. But it wasn’t just whites helping blacks. It was much more complicated than that.
if you got to Canada, you were free. And Canada, to their credit, refused to extradite fugitive slaves. It was under the British then, of course, and, you know, the British Empire had abolished slavery in 1833. And the Canadians said, “Look, there’s no more slavery in the British Empire, so running away from slavery is not a crime on our books.” If you’re a murderer and you run away to Canada, they’ll extradite you to the United States, because murder is a crime in Canada. But they absolutely refused to send fugitive slaves back. And also in Canada, blacks could vote. They could serve on juries. They had better economic opportunities than they did even in the Northern United States. So Canada offered more to many black people than they could find in the U.S.
New York had the first black newspaper in the country, Freedom’s Journal, Colored American. Unfortunately for historians like me, they went out of existence as of 1841. And then you don’t—then you have about a 15-year period in New York with no black press, and then it comes back again in the later 1850s. So the information begins to become harder to come by in the mid-1840s and 1850s. So, you know, it’s like a little detective story here. You’ve got to pick up pieces from all over the place. But, you know, the information is there if you look hard enough.
150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War is coming up. And then the 150th anniversary begins of Reconstruction. And as you said, I wrote a very long book on Reconstruction, and I do believe we need to think again about Reconstruction, because the issues of Reconstruction, of citizenship, of voting rights, of terrorism—like the Klan—are still facing our country today.
the civil rights movement was sometimes called the Second Reconstruction, and that’s a good term, because all these issues became part of the national agenda in Reconstruction. And that was the period when the first national civil rights legislation was passed, the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The 14th and 15th Amendments were added to the Constitution.
The Civil Rights Act for the first time declared that anybody born in the United States is a citizen. That may seem like sort of second nature to us now, but it was not true then. Black people often were not citizens. And even today, it’s very contested, because, as you know, there are a lot of people who think, well, children born here whose parents are undocumented immigrants are not citizens. But they are. I’m sorry. The 14th Amendment—the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment both say that very explicitly. It was the first definition of American citizenship.
And then it went on to say, the Civil Rights Act—and then the 14th Amendment does this also—that these citizens are all to enjoy equal civil rights. There was nothing like that before the Civil War, absolutely not. Whiteness was a privilege. Black people, even in the North, had very, very few rights. And so, really, it’s Reconstruction that puts this concept of equal citizenship, without regard to race, into our laws and constitutions.
And then, a little bit later, black men—not women, of course—get the right to vote in large numbers for the first time in American history. So you get the first experiment in interracial democracy in our history, where many, many black people are voting. There had been a handful voting in the North before the war. At least 2,000, by my estimate, hold some public office during Reconstruction in the South, ranging from justice of the peace all the way up to Congress, the House and Senate. And so you get—really, on the ashes of slavery, you’re trying to build a equal society.
Now, you know, it’s by no means perfect. Certainly Reconstruction failed to address the economic plight of African Americans, and their desire for land of their own did not get fulfilled. But, you know, Reconstruction was successful enough that it spurred a violent reaction and—again, this is, you know, an issue of today—terrorism, that we had our home-grown terrorism, the Ku Klux Klan and groups like that, which sprang up to try to restore white supremacy in the South. And unfortunately, you know, after—by the 1870s, the will in the North to enforce these new laws and amendments was fading.
And so, Reconstruction—you know, this is a brief summary, but Reconstruction ends in 1877. But as W. E. B. Du Bois said in his great book, Black Reconstruction in America, this was an experiment in democracy. That’s why we should think about it on this show. This was the first time we genuinely had democracy in this country—for men, but without race being a barrier to participation in American political life.
by the 1870s, more and more Northerners, even Republicans, who had put this into effect, are saying, you know, this is all a mistake. Social Darwinism is becoming more and more prominent. That is, this is an effort to uplift those at the bottom of society, and that really is just unnatural; it’s just like trying to save a species in the natural world that’s doomed—you know, the struggle for existence, the survival of the fittest. And yes, the idea comes along that Reconstruction governments are full of corruption. There was corruption in the South. It wasn’t nearly as much as the Tweed Ring in New York City. But the point is, they said, it is blacks voting that is the reason for corruption. That, you know, it’s one thing to say, yeah, there’s corruption, there always is, but here it’s giving blacks the right to vote was the terrible mistake, and so we’ve got to take it away if we want to restore good government. So, yes, in the North, this racist image of Reconstruction becomes more and more prevalent. And then, later, a generation later, as you well know, our university, at Columbia, becomes the place where the Dunning School—where the scholarly underpinning for this idea is developed by William Dunning and Burgess and their students, and you get, you know, the whole literature of around 1900 or so that Reconstruction was a terrible mistake because black people were given the right to vote, and therefore the South is correct to take the right to vote away from them.
Reconstruction ended in a political bargain in 1876. Just like in 2000, the disputed election hinged on Florida and a couple of other states. Both sides claimed to have won. Tilden, the Democrat, Hayes, the Republican, claimed to have won the presidential election of 1876. There were these disputed returns from three of the states. And after a rather complicated winter, the bargain, if you want to call it that, of 1877 was reached, where basically Republicans got control of the national government, but they acquiesced in Democrats, who then were the racist party, taking control of the entire South. And Hayes promised that the federal government would no longer intervene to protect the rights of blacks. In other words, they had in the past. Under Grant, they had sent federal marshals into South Carolina, Alabama, to crush the Ku Klux Klan. The federal courts had tried, sometimes without success, sometimes with, to enforce the civil rights measures. But the end of Reconstruction means then the federal government is going to sort of abdicate its responsibility for protecting these new rights of the former slaves. So it was definitely a disaster for black people and for American democracy altogether.
Republican Party that initially wanted to abolish slavery then retreats and allows the Democrats to seize control.
history never ends at one moment. It’s not until 1900, more or less, that a whole new racial system is put in place in the South, what we kind of call Jim Crow—you know, segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters, the emasculation of education for blacks in the South, very severely limited economic opportunities. You have that whole—it takes a while to put that into place. It doesn’t just come in 1877.
the major forces putting that into place were Southern planters, basically, merchants. It’s the upper-class Southerners who are, you know, regaining their control of Southern political life and Southern economic life, which had been wrested from them during Reconstruction. But the point is, the North acquiesces. It’s not just the South. It’s the North acquiesces in this. And after all, the Supreme Court, just like today, there’s a whole series of Supreme Court decisions over 20, 30 years that chip away at these rights and reinterpret the 14th Amendment as a protection of corporations, not a protection of black citizens. So, the whole nation is guilty, even though the main effort is in the South.
The public history, as we call it, the representation of our history in the public realm, is half a century or more behind our current conception of the—for example, today, any—every historian will tell you slavery was the fundamental institution of Southern life, it was central to the American economy, and it was central to the coming of the Civil War. But—and there were millions of people who suffered from slavery. There is not a single museum of slavery in the United States, although I read in The New York Times there’s a fellow in Louisiana who is opening one now. But certainly, if you go to Washington, D.C., you don’t see very much about the history of slavery in our country in the many museums and, you know, monuments there.
We have a big Holocaust Museum, which is a wonderful museum. But what would we think if the Germans built a big Museum of American Slavery in Berlin and had nothing about the Holocaust? We would think they were trying to avoid something. There is no monument in this country to the victims of slavery. There is one in France. President Sarkozy dedicated it about seven or eight years ago in Luxembourg Gardens. I’ve been there. It’s a small thing, but it’s dedicated to the slaves of the French Empire. We don’t have something like that. So, you know, our public history needs to be updated.
the state of Israel is constantly getting these payments from Germany. I mean, in a way, that’s the closest analogy to what people talk about reparations here. You know, we’ve had reparations like to Japanese Americans who were interned in World War II; under President Reagan, this was signed. Now, those were the individual victims of internment. There’s nobody alive today who was a slave before the Civil War. A better analogy is that Germany is still making payments every year to Israel, so that’s reparations to a people, not just to specific victims. You know, I don’t—I’m not sure I like to use the word “reparations.” It has become so politically charged that it may be counterproductive. I prefer to talk about social policy. In other words, if you look at our society today, there are still—I mean, you know, as the president said at Selma, and many others, we’ve come a long way, but if you look at any index of social life—I don’t care whether it’s life expectancy, health, education, unemployment rates, on and on and on—there is still a very significant racial gap in this country. So, we need policies to address that. I guess what I’d say is, if the political situation existed where reparations were possible, we would not need reparations.
Americans who continue to say, “Well, this is all this racism and discrimination was in the past”. We’re colorblind now. I hear that from my own students. And in a certain sense, I understand it. We went to Columbia, both of us, Columbia College. Juan is a lot younger than I am, but we were both there. You know, at that time, it was basically an all-white institution, as you know. I mean, my class may have had two or three nonwhites and that was it. Yours may have had a few more. But today it’s much more racially diverse, and the experience of students is basically that they interact on a fairly equal level with people of all—and they say, “Well, what’s the problem here with race?” Now, occasionally, you get something like an Oklahoma, where there is overt racial—but you don’t see that around Columbia very much. But nonetheless, you have to say, well, look at the society; don’t just look at, you know, a group of upper-middle-class people and how they’re interacting with each other. The history of racism still weighs on the present. And actually, even though I’m a historian, it’s not just slavery we’re talking about. This is not just—didn’t just stop 150 years ago. There is race—the report on Ferguson just the other day. This is still happening. It’s in different ways. We don’t have Bull Connor out there with his dogs, exactly.
We have police chiefs with tanks. We have people being shot who are unarmed. So, obviously, that is certainly happening. But, you know, the face of racism, to me, today is a guy in a three-piece suit, a banker at Wells Fargo, for example, who is pushing black people into subprime mortgages, and they’re going to lose their house, whereas a white person with exactly the same financial record is going into a better mortgage. So, you know, there is racism built into all sorts of institutions. Often it’s not quite as visible. But that’s part of what it means to analyze society, to see through the facade and see what’s really, you know, in the depths of the society.
Reading Gateway to Freedom. this is another just out of the Record of Fugitives kept by Sydney Howard Gay in New York City, a record of fugitives who passed through the city in the mid-1850s. I talk about Harriet Tubman, the great, you know, in there. But Harriet Tubman is well known. Here’s one who is sort of like her who isn’t well known: Frank Wanzer.
“[T]he dramatic escape of twenty-five-year-old Frank Wanzer, his fiancée Emily Foster, and a married couple, … and Wanzer’s subsequent return to bring out relatives still in slavery. Having hired a carriage and a pair of horses, the group departed on Christmas Eve, 1855, from Loudoun County, Virginia, northwest of Washington, accompanied by two other men on horseback. They traveled day and night, braving frost, hunger, and ‘very severe weather.’ They barely avoided recapture. After covering 100 miles, they lost their way in Maryland and inquired at a mill for the road to Pennsylvania. The miller realized they were fugitive slaves, and the party soon found itself surrounded by seven white men on horseback … The fugitives, however, including the women, were heavily armed; when they brandished knives and … pistols, their pursuers decided [quote] not to ‘meddle’ with them.” And they go on and on. They reach Philadelphia.
“Wanzer, however, was determined to return to Virginia. In July 1856, armed with three pistols, he traveled by train from Toronto to [Pennsylvania] and walked [back to Virginia]. A dozen slaves agreed to leave with him, but only three kept the appointment—his sister, her husband, and another man. The party turned up at William Still’s office [that’s in Philadelphia] on August 18 and at Gay’s [in New York] the following day, and were dispatched to Canada.”
So, this is incredibly courageous, to escape to Canada and then come back into the South to lead other people out, so—and no one’s ever heard of Frank Wanzer. You know, Harriet Tubman is well known. So this kind of story in the Record of Fugitives is just tremendously dramatic.
I grew up in what I guess is colloquially called a sort of old left family. There were four brothers—my father, who was a professor of history; Jack Foner. Three of them have passed, but one, Henry Foner, a labor leader, president of the Fur and Leather Workers Union, is still alive. And, in fact, in about two weeks, we’ll celebrate his 96th birthday. Another uncle, Moe Foner, was head of—a big official of the 1199 Drug and Hospital Workers Union here. So they were all activists and radicals, and some of them suffered for their activity. My father and uncle were blacklisted from teaching for a long time.
And your uncle is the historian Philip Foner very, very prolific historian. So this was, you know—and growing up, I met people like, as a kid, Paul Robeson. W. E. B. Du Bois was a friend of my family.
when I met Du Bois, I was like 12, and he was 92, so, you know. he was a very—he was a very dignified-looking old man, you know. It’s only in retrospect that I say, “Oh, my God! I met Du Bois!” When I was 12, I wasn’t quite as knowledgeable about the significance of that.
father and uncle both taught at City College in—or the City University in New—in 1940, way before McCarthyism, there was a purge in the City University system of, “communists.” Many of them weren’t communists, but it didn’t matter. And 50 or 60 faculty were fired and then could never get a job again either—then, after the war, McCarthyism begins. And so, it was only in the 1960s, my Uncle Phil eventually got a job at Lincoln University, black college. Pennsylvania.
And my father got a job at Colby College in Maine, where he actually established the first black studies program in New England. This was in the mid to late 1960s. But there were about a 25-year period where they could not teach. And, you know, this is just a sign of how fragile our liberties can be in this country.
— source democracynow.org
Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. historian. He is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and author of numerous books on American history, including, most recently, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.