“Until 2007, when it was unearthed by a Columbia University undergraduate, few scholars were aware of the record of fugitive slaves written by Sydney Howard Gay. Gay was a key Underground Railroad operative from the mid-1840s until the eve of the Civil War. He was also the editor of the weekly newspaper the National Anti-Slavery Standard.
When historian and Columbia University professor Eric Foner saw the document, he knew it was special: It listed the identities of escaped slaves, where they came from, who their owners were, how they escaped and who helped them on their way to the North.
“A lot of information we have of the Underground Railroad is really memoirs from a long time after the Civil War and you know … people’s memory is sometimes a little faulty, sometimes a little exaggerated,” Foner tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “So here we have documents right from the moment these things are happening — and it’s a very unusual and revealing picture of the world of these fugitive slaves and the people who assisted them.”
Foner’s new book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, focuses on New York. According to Foner, the city was a crucial way station in the railroad’s Northeast corridor, which brought fugitive slaves from the upper South through Philadelphia and on to upstate New York, New England and Canada.
“This was a great social movement of the mid-19th century — and these are the things that inspire me in American history,” Foner says, “The struggle of people to make this a better country. To me, that’s what genuine patriotism is.”
On how the Underground Railroad was organized
“We think of [the Underground Railroad] as a highly organized operation with set routes and stations where people would just go from one to the other, maybe secret passwords. It wasn’t nearly as organized as that. I would say it’s better described as a series of local networks … in what I call the “metropolitan corridor of the East,” from places like Norfolk, Va., up to Washington, Baltimore, in places in Delaware, Philadelphia, New York and further north. There were local groups, local individuals, who helped fugitive slaves. They were in communication with each other. Their efforts rose and fell. Sometimes these operations were very efficient; sometimes they almost went out of existence. The Philadelphia one basically lapsed for about seven or eight years until coming back into existence in the 1850s.
“So one should not think of it as a highly organized system. … What amazed me is how few people can accomplish a great deal. In New York City, I don’t think more than a dozen people at any one time were actively engaged in assisting fugitive slaves, but nonetheless, they did it very effectively. … I developed a great deal of respect for what a small number of people can do in very difficult circumstances. After all, they are violating federal law and state law by helping fugitive slaves.
On the myth that white abolitionists were the heroes
“The No. 1 myth, which I don’t think is widely held today but certainly had a long history, is that the Underground Railroad, or indeed the entire abolitionist movement, was [the] activity of humanitarian whites on behalf of helpless blacks — that the heroes were the white abolitionists who assisted these fugitive slaves. Now, they were heroic — and I admire people like that who really put themselves on the line to do this — but the fact is that black people were deeply involved in every aspect of the escape of slaves. …
“In the South, [escapees] were helped by mostly black people, slave and free. When they got to Philadelphia or New York City, local free blacks assisted them all the way up. …
“The Underground Railroad was interracial. It’s actually something to bear in mind today when racial tensions can be rather strong: This was an example of black and white people working together in a common cause to promote the cause of liberty.”