Into the Forest, Out of the Woods

Thoughts on Eric Foner’s

Gateway to Freedom

By Omar H. Ali

As I write these words, having just put my two small children to bed, I think about the privilege that my little family and I have of simply being together, safely, with shelter, without fear of being separated from each other. Less than twenty yards from where I type these words–in the warm and loving comfort of our home–begins the backside of Guilford Forest, a wide sheltering space used during the 19th century by fugitive slaves to find safety, at least temporarily, in what was the southern terminus of the Underground Railroad.

Here, in the very space carved out on the edge of the 250 acres of remaining forest of once anti-slavery Quaker-held land in Greensboro, North Carolina, enslaved African Americans made the decision to run for their lives. Many sought protection in these woods–maroons digging caves for shelter, foraging to sustain themselves–in order not to be separated from loved ones upon hearing news that they themselves were going to be sold away, sometimes into the deep South, where escape was even more difficult. Others, meanwhile, ran into the woods with the hopes of gaining their liberty by starting on their long and arduous journey northwards, towards freedom.

It is with the background of the trees that cast their shadows under the moonlit sky behind me that I think about the ways in which we, as people, have connected with each other during some of the most difficult times, under some of the most difficult circumstances, and over some of the greatest distances. One of those times was the mid-19th century when legalized slavery existed in the nation and nearly four million African Americans were enslaved across the land. How people connected with each other to survive enslavement, escaped it, or worked together with others to undermine it, is a story of epic proportions.

While there have been many books written about the Underground Railroad and its great abolitionist heroes and heroines–Maryland’s Harriet Tubman, North Carolina’s Levi Coffin, and New York’s Jermain Loguen, among others far more courageous than I can only begin to imagine–the discovery of a new primary source, a manuscript entitled “Record of Fugitives,” a first-hand account of events in 1855 and 1856 by the New York City-based journalist and railroad operative Sydney Howard Gay, offers critical new insight.

Based on this document, and many others, Pulitizer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner reveals the ‘hidden history’ of the people–black and white–who created and used the series of local networks along the eastern seaboard of the United States stretching from the Upper South through Upstate New York in his latest book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

 

As Foner notes in an excellent interview on NPR much of the information we have about the Underground Railroad (specifically, the Eastern Underground Railroad) comes from accounts that took place decades after the events–by which time many details were forgotten and possible embellishments were infused into memoirs. By contrast, Gay’s document gives us the voices of the men and women who came through his office and described in detail the things they had just been through, the people they met, and who they were themselves.

 Among the people Foner helps to reveal in his book (via Gay but in conjunction with a Baltimore Sun escaped slave advertisement)–and who I can’t stop thinking about as I check on my little ones near me–is Emiline Chaplin, a twenty-six year old fugitive slave, a slender woman of dark complexion, a mother and a daughter, with a slight stammer, perhaps still shaken, who, with extraordinary courage, grit, and determination, managed to escape with her two small children …

 

There is much to be said about the rich and evocative history that Foner presents to us–the ways in which people escaped by carriage, by boat, by foot, and sometimes by train, under the most difficult conditions, the important role of the New York Vigilance Committee in helping fugitive slaves in the 1830s, the fears and joys that people expressed about their journeys, such as the elation of Henry “Box” Brown upon his dramatic emergence from the wooden crate he had daringly placed himself into, and the tenacity of both those who escaped and those who helped them escape, from black sailors and dockworkers to white Quakers and other anti-slavery activists.

For me, the story of the Underground Railroad somehow became much more personal in reading Gateway to Freedom. On many levels the book is personal, as its author, Foner, is one of my dearest professors, who supervised my doctoral dissertation on the Black Populists over a dozen years ago at Columbia University and taught me not only the historian’s craft but, as importantly, the craft of teaching. But the book is also personal in that Foner brings out that which is hidden and helps to connect many voices, people, and their efforts into a seamless whole–even acknowledging how so much of the Underground Railroad networks were disparate. Lastly, the book is personal in that it connects me to the efforts of people, then and now, who tried and try to make social change in the best ways we know how–with courage, compassion, and creativity, knowing that we are part of a much larger history.

 

In reading this book, I feel close to all of these extraordinary women and men, to Professor Foner, Emiline Chaplin and her children, and to the great woods that connect me to all of us.

Dr. Omar Ali was recently appointed the Interim Dean of the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He serves on the Board of Directors of IndependentVoting.org.

Omar Ali touring the Guilford Forest with students from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Quaker scholar Max Carter.  November 2014

Omar Ali touring the Guilford Forest with students from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Quaker scholar Max Carter. November 2014

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