P4P Conversation with Eric Foner Tonight

P4P Conference Call

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

I am looking forward to our conversation this evening with Eric Foner as we explore together his book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Undergroud Railroad.  Bring your questions, and call in and enjoy the dialogue!

In closing, I want to share this note from Dr. Jessie Fields.

Freedom Rising and a Post Modern Moment

In reading Gateway to Freedom: the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Eric Foner I have become more aware of how much our democracy was shaped by the battles of the antislavery movement and the fight for freedom and equality in the years following emancipation. Using Sydney Howard Gay’s newly discovered Record of Fugitives of 1855 and 1856 and other historical documents and records Eric Foner captures the stories of fugitive slaves who reached freedom with the aid of black and white abolitionists. By their acts of running away and resisting slavery the fugitives pushed the nation to confront the brutal inhumanity of slavery. Not all slaves could escape, the ones who did were often aided by other slaves who hid them or provided them with food. Gateway to Freedom also describes the major role that free blacks played in assisting fugitive slaves. Free blacks in Northern cities often took to the streets to fight for the freedom of runaway slaves.

Fugitive slaves seeking freedom played a pivotal role in propelling the expansion of American democracy. Many African Americans who reached freedom in upstate New York, New England or Canada would go on to become active community leaders such as James W.C. Pennington and antislavery spokespersons such as Henry “Box” Brown and agents of the Underground Railroad such as Jermain Loguen in Syracuse, many would fight in the Civil War as did Harriet Tubman and Garland White. Thirteen of the twenty-two blacks elected to Congress during reconstruction were former slaves.

The turbulent decades leading up to the Civil War, the Civil War itself and the period of Reconstruction raised fundamental questions for the American people, questions such as who was an American citizen and what were the rights of a citizen and questions concerning voting rights and equal protection before the law.  It took the Civil Rights and mass movements of the 1960’s to move forward the promise of full equality.

Today the American political process has become a closed calcified system run by the Democratic and Republican Parties. The independent movement is raising fundamental questions such as: to whom does our democracy belong, the people or the parties and whether the parties have the right to use taxpayer funds to conduct “members only primaries”. Here in New York City over the last several months thousands of New Yorkers have signed petitions to Senator Schumer calling for opening up the primary system to all voters and not requiring voters to join a political party to have the right to vote in all rounds of elections. Efforts for primary reform are underway in other states as well.

It is out of the crucible of abolitionism, the Civil War and Reconstruction that the principles of birthright United States citizenship and equal protection before the law arose and were added to the Constitution as the Fourteenth Amendment.

We independents stand on those principles in leading the movement for structural and systemic reform to open up our political process. This is a moment to further develop American democracy that has been advanced by so many including slaves who had no material wealth but gave all. Gateway to Freedom gives testament to their sacrifice and courage.

Jessie Fields is a physician in Harlem and a founder of the NYC Independence Party. She serves on boards of Open Primaries and the All Stars Project.

Reader’s Forum–Harriet Hoffman

I recently saw an announcement that New York City will publicly acknowledge for the first time that it sanctioned a huge slave market on Wall Street from 1711 to 1762, and that a memorial marker will be erected on the site.  This made me curious so I decided to do a little research on the Internet.  While I knew that slavery had once flourished in New York (at one time 40% of residents owned slaves) I quickly learned that the city did not just tolerate the buying and selling of slaves, it actually organized the market!  The City received tax revenue from every slave sold and itself used slave labor for infrastructure work for many years, including, it is said, the building of City Hall.  I also read that thousands of Africans who passed through the Wall Street slave market contributed to the prosperity of companies like Aetna, New York Life and JPMorgan Chase, to name a few (WNYC FM Radio, 4/14/15).  So it is no wonder that the Underground Railroad needed to keep moving escaping slaves north, out of New York City where even freed slaves were not safe.  I probably would have paid less attention to the timely acknowledgement of NYC’s slave market had I not been immersed in the wonderful stories of courage told in Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom.  I’m so glad this wonderful book is available now.

You can listen to Jim O’Grady’s report for WYNC radio, “City to Acknowledge It Operated a Slave Market for More Than 50 Years.”



Harper’s Magazine illustration of the New York City slave market in 1643. (Harper’s/Wikipedia Commons)

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is the volunteer coordinator for the NYC Independence Clubs.

P4P Conference Call

With Eric Foner

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

The Washington Post Reviews Gateway to Freedom


Fugitive slaves could travel the Underground Railroad, a “series of local networks” in cities from Virginia to Canada. (Library of Congress)

                                             January 23, 2015

The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad  By Eric Foner


The Underground Railroad figured prominently in the politics of slavery and freedom in antebellum America. Yet it has confounded modern historians, who have tended either to exaggerate its scope or to dismiss it as largely mythological. In his carefully argued new book, Eric Foner aims to set the record straight. Drawing on his deep expertise in the history of abolitionism, Foner demonstrates that one cannot understand the origins of the American Civil War without taking into account the resistance and activism of fugitive slaves and their antislavery allies.

Foner’s focus is on the beleaguered and intrepid cadre of operatives who ran New York City’s Underground Railroad hub in the 1850s. The city was part of an “interlocking series of local networks” that stretched from Virginia into Canada, constituting the railroad’s Northeastern corridor. The book’s early chapters set the stage, explaining that New York was no bastion of abolitionism but instead a zone of conflict over slavery. Lagging behind other Northern states, the Empire State did not abolish slavery until 1827. Even after abolition, slavery persisted because of an 1817 state law that permitted Southern slaveowners, who thronged Manhattan on business and as tourists, to bring slaves along for up to nine months without those slaves becoming free. Moreover, the problem of kidnapping plagued the city, as it did Philadelphia. Whites routinely seized free blacks, claimed fraudulently that they were slaves and, with the blessing of corrupt local officials, sold them or hauled them off to the South.

These outrages did not go unchallenged. In the 1830s, free black activists in New York, such as David Ruggles and Theodore S. Wright, led a “Vigilance Committee” that combated kidnapping, aided fugitive slaves and lobbied for black civil rights. Working in tandem with white abolitionists such as Lewis Tappan, black activists achieved some notable successes, such as the repeal, in 1841, of the law that had permitted Southern masters to bring their slaves into New York. But fugitives from the South remained in a special legal category, liable, according to the provisions of the U.S. Constitution and a 1793 law, to recapture and rendition. Alarmed by the rise of Vigilance Committees and of antislavery sentiment in the North, Southern slaveholders demanded more vigorous law enforcement.

With the passage in 1850 of a new, more stringent Fugitive Slave Law that enlisted federal marshals and commissioners in slave-catching, the Underground Railroad had to extend its reach beyond the North and into Canada. New York City’s network rose to this challenge, with Sydney Howard Gay, the meticulous and principled editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, emerging as its chronicler and Louis Napoleon, a black porter who worked in Gay’s newspaper office, as its most resourceful agent. Once Foner turns to the stories of these men, his book hits its stride, as he is able to tap a rich and overlooked source: Gay’s remarkable “Record of Fugitives,” which provides detailed accounts of the journeys of about 200 of the more than 1,000 escaped slaves who passed through the city in the 1850s. When cross-referenced with William Still’s equally rich chronicle of fugitive slaves who sojourned in Philadelphia on their way to points north, Gay’s record book makes it possible to explain with great precision both why and how slaves fled slavery.

Fugitives testified to Gay that the primary motivation for slave flight was the physical abuse they suffered at the hands of their masters; the second most prominent motive for escape was the grim prospect of sale. Most fugitives left family members behind in the South, while some ran away to be reunited with relatives who had already fled. Many hoped to return to the South to rescue their family members. Fugitives passing through New York most often escaped in groups rather than individually, and they used a wide variety of means. Some paid ship captains for clandestine passage from Southern ports such as Norfolk to the North; others appropriated horses or carriages or set out on foot. Such ruses would not have been possible had slaves not found whites willing, for moral or pecuniary reasons, to help them — whites such as Albert Fountain of Virginia, whose schooner the City of Richmond ran fugitives through Wilmington.

Foner dispels the lingering aura of myth surrounding the Underground Railroad by documenting scores of stirring escapes. For example, he details the May 1856 flight of four fugitives — Ben Jackson, James Coleman, William Connoway and Henry Hopkins — who set out on foot from Dorchester County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for the distant haven of Canada. They had to run a gauntlet, slipping through the slave state of Delaware and then traversing Pennsylvania and New York, states crawling with slave-hunters who sought to collect the rewards that masters posted for capturing and remanding fugitives. In the end, the four men succeeded, thanks to the ability of local networks to work in concert. Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett secured them passage through Wilmington; Still charted their course from Philadelphia to New York; and Gay sent them to Syracuse and on to Canada. Tubman and Still were African American, Garrett and Gay were white — the Underground Railroad, like the broader abolitionist movement, represented the possibility of an interracial politics in which whites and blacks not only made common cause but also shared leadership roles.

With antislavery newspapers trumpeting its success, the Underground Railroad was by the mid-1850s a quasi-public institution and the target of slaveholders’ growing anger and resentment. But for all its success, the Underground Railroad’s story is not one of linear progress. Fugitives in New York remained on precarious footing; as Foner notes, “New York City’s ties with the slave South seemed to solidify as the sectional conflict deepened.” Not until the Civil War started did the antislavery movement gain inexorable momentum. A mass wartime exodus of slaves from Southern farms and plantations to Union lines motivated Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the belated repeal, in 1864, of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The freedom struggle would grind on, against terrible odds. But the Underground Railroad had provided it with heroes, as beacons to the light the way.

P4P Conference Call

With Eric Foner

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

P4P Field Trip: Exploring the Underground Railroad in Brooklyn

Plymouth Church

Historic Brooklyn Underground Railroad Site

P4P NYC members and friends visit Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Photo: June Hirsh

P4P NYC members and friends visit Plymouth Church in Brooklyn

After coming across Plymouth Church while reading Gateway to Freedom: the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Professor Eric Foner, Jessica Marta suggested that we organize a field trip to visit the church.  On Sunday, 25 Politics for the People NYC members and friends visited the church, which had been part of the Underground Railroad in Brooklyn.

We were given a wonderful tour by Ms. Lois Rosebrooks, Director of the Plymouth Church History Tours. As we sat in the church’s original pews Ms. Rosebrooks gave us a very moving account of the church’s anti-slavery activism under the leadership of Henry Ward Beecher.

Lois Rosebrooks, (standing) the Director of the Plymouth Church History Tours, speaks with P4P group.

Lois Rosebrooks, (standing) the Director of the Plymouth Church History Tours, speaks with P4P group.

In 1847 Henry Ward Beecher became Plymouth Church’s first minister. He actively aided fugitive slaves, raised money for their freedom and spoke out against the Fugitive Slave Law. As Eric Foner writes:

“Beecher helped to raise funds for the New York State Vigilance Committee, and his church provided shelter to fugitives. From his pulpit he held mock “auctions” of female slaves, to raise money from parishioners to purchase their freedom.” (Gateway to Freedom, page 117)

Abraham Lincoln attended Plymouth Church when he visited New York City to give his Cooper Union Address in 1860. In fact he was initially invited to speak at Plymouth Church but the location was moved to Cooper Union. The day before the Cooper

The plague on the pew where Abraham Lincoln sat.

The plague on the pew where Abraham Lincoln sat.

Union speech which propelled his presidential campaign, Lincoln attended services at Plymouth Church. In the church garden is an engraving of Lincoln sitting in a pew at the church.

In 1863 Beecher was asked by President Lincoln to travel to Great Britain to speak there in support of the Union cause, which Beecher did and he helped prevent Britain from siding with the confederacy.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the church in 1963 and Ms. Rosebrooks was in the church choir at the time. She described Mahalia Jackson saying to Dr. King, “give them the dream speech Martin, give them the dream speech!” Dr. King then tossed away his prepared remarks and gave a passionate sermon on the “American Dream”.

We were thrilled to visit and explore the history together. For P4P members from out of town, if you are in New York City at any point, I hope that you will visit the church which is located at 75 Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights.

—Dr. Jessie Fields

 Some P4P members share their impressions:

From Cheryl, Brishae and Grace White:

It was great seeing everyone at the tour of Plymouth Church!  My daughters shared that it was amazing, intriguing & somewhat an emotional experience to know that Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass & Martin Luther King visited Plymouth Church.

NYC P4P Members and friends at Plymouth Church

NYC P4P Members and friends at Plymouth Church

To be able to visit such an historical place was mind blowing!

I thought for Beecher to take such a risk during that time period was incredibly brave & unselfish!  To know that he didn’t succumb to the common rhetoric & racism toward Black folks or people different from the norm is to be celebrated immensely! I also enjoyed the guide’s own personal story & how it was revealed that her own father was a member of Plymouth Church, which solidified her personal connection to the church.

It was much enjoyed!

Cheryl, Brishae and Grace White.


Impressions and Observations – Tour of Plymouth Church, April 12, 2015 (154 years to the day after the start of the Civil War) From Richard Patik

Being in a spot where famous people stood and spoke and sat in Plymouth Church and who helped develop and lead a movement to end slavery — I recalled a statement Lenora Fulani made at a community organizing event in the Bronx late last year. Several hundred people came to this event, myself included, expecting to hear great things and for Lenora and other leaders to take charge and change things as they are. Dr. Fulani said, “Who’s going to change the world? You are who is going to change the world.”

I am reminded from this visit to Plymouth Church — where Henry Ward Beecher preached, Abraham Lincoln visited, Clara Barton and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King spoke — that we often look to “great people” to change our world, to overthrow old ways of how we ourselves or our world is organized — not feeling our own power to do so. Not feeling our own power, nor our responsibility.

Hearing the history of this historic church from the very knowledgeable Ms. Rosebrooks we can see that movements start small, they involve many people, many voices who take unpopular positions and uncomfortable risks, doing “weird” things (as Beecher did raising funds to supply rifles to Kansas Free-soilers or in holding mock slave auctions in front of the congregation to put a face on the indignities of slavery (for both slave and slaver), all the while leading a respectable congregation. And currents of change also begin flowing because others [the congregation in this case] say “Yes” to these risks and weirdness and something has a chance to be built that wasn’t before. Yes, and someone invites us on a tour, we come and now we collectively have this experience which might lead to…

We were reminded, too, in this tour that change and re-organization takes time. Many ordinary actions take place over time, in fits and starts, behind the ones that make history books or sound bites on the news. It’s a compilation of a lot of ordinary efforts by ordinary people who together find the courage to LOOK at uncomfortable or deplorable things and speak about them and give new performances they don’t even know how to give. And in so doing inspire others to do the same. Even generations later.

 Our ‘group picture’ in the process of forming, in front of the Henry Ward Beecher statue. What we will be-come caught in a moment of organizing activity.

Warm regards,  Richard   


I loved joining the Politics for the People Book Club at Plymouth Church. The presentation was a fascinating and inspiring history of Plymouth Church and the role Rev.Henry Ward Beecher played in establishing it as an important stop on the Underground Railroad. I was especially proud to be there learning this history with all of us!

Vicki Wallace

From June Hirsh 

I found it amazing to learn more about the bravery of ordinary people who stood up against the horrors and injustice of slavery when most everyone looked the other way – or supported slavery as the status quo   – – and that it was fugitive slaves and free blacks who courageously led the way –  risking their very existence to find a way to live in dignity. It was a proud and haunting feeling being in the very church that housed and defended these illegal and morally just activities.    


Comments on the Tour From Vicki Karant

What a wonderful experience to spend an early spring Sunday at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.  It has played a role in the last two book club selections.  Being inside listening to an enthusiastic historian of the church brought the profound significance of the place and the role of the people who called it theirs into sharp focus.  The sacrifices of those who protected fugitive slaves was present in the walls, the beautiful windows and entire atmosphere.

–Vicki Karant

P4P Conference Call

With Eric Foner

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

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

Readers Forum–June Hirsh

When I first began reading Gateway To Freedom, I was struck by many historical facts that were little known to me, which debunked assumptions I had, in particular, New York City’s role in the experience of fugitive slaves and the leadership role played by fugitive slaves in concert with the Underground Railroad (UR) that was the “gateway to freedom” for millions of slaves.

Gateway To Freedom brought to mind Isabel Wilkerson’s phenomenal book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which was an earlier P4P Book Club choice.  Like Wilkerson’s book, which showed how the migration of six million blacks who left the Jim Crow South from the 1920’s to the 1960’s planted the seeds for the nascent Civil Rights movement, in Foner’s account the UR and the fugitive slave movement set the stage for the Civil War and the end of institutionalized slavery in the US. They each carried out heroic acts that aided immediate survival and reflected dreams of living life with dignity, playing seminal roles in future efforts to end slavery and fuel the Civil rights movement.

Independent Voting activists Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (r) at the National Conference of Independents, March 2015

Independent Voting activists Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (r) at the National Conference of Independents, March 2015

Foner’s compelling narrative has changed my understanding of the UR. Both the historical content and his beautiful writing style transport me, giving me new ways of seeing an enormously significant, painful and heroic piece of American history that I had not fully imagined or appreciated.

Looking back I realized that the very first sentence of this book “The 19th century’s most celebrated Black American tasted freedom on September 4th, 1838 when he arrived in NYC as a 19 year old fugitive slave” did not stay with me as I proceeded on. This Black American’s name was Frederick Bailey.  Upon arriving in NYC a free man, he changed his surname to Johnson. When he subsequently realized that enormous numbers of Blacks took the last name Johnson, he chose once again what was to become his final surname – Douglass.  “The 19th century’s most celebrated Black American” as it turned out was Frederick Douglass – even retelling this now gives me goose bumps. Douglass spoke of fugitive slaves as “freedom’s swift winged angels” and said that “knowledge was the pathway from slavery to freedom”.

Foner re-visits and debunks another popular myth about the UR. It was not a formal institution but in fact a network of abolitionist groups – sparse in some areas, in others highly organized. Although in some cases it did aid dramatic escapes, the UR was primarily focused on assisting fugitive slaves who had already escaped from their bondage and reached the north on their own. Many fugitive slaves developed detailed plans of escape, at times were captured, escaping again and again. Many had friends and relatives waiting for them and had arranged jobs in different cities, in Canada and elsewhere.

A number of eastern newspapers labeled abolitionists and fugitive slaves as “dens of negro thieves and fugitive protectors”.  Southern papers wrote that associations of abolitionists “first business is to steal or cause to be stolen, seduced or inveigled, slaves from southern plantations; to steal him from an indulgent master – to carry him to a cold, strange and uncongenial country and there leave him to starve, freeze and die in glorious freedom.” The same periodicals even proclaimed that slaves “escaped” and fled back to their plantations and masters. The outrageousness of these claims was exposed by slaves themselves who at great risk to their lives and newfound freedom, spoke eloquently and forcefully at public meetings of UR supporters and potential donors, even baring their physical scars.

Between 1830 -1860, 1000-5000 slaves escaped slavery per year. In fact, this was not a substantial number given that by 1860 the US slave population was 4 million.

Not long after escaping to NYC, Frederick Douglass was urged by abolitionists to leave. Unlike upstate NY, New England and parts of the Midwest where the anti-slavery movement flourished, NYC was not a safe place for fugitive slaves. A port city, it had economic ties to the cotton industry and to the slave south. Especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, few blacks could safely remain.  This law created an environment where fugitive slaves were more easily rounded up, and sold back to their former slave owners. This law also led to an epidemic of the abduction of the children of Free Blacks. Kidnapped right off of the streets of NYC and other states with southern ties, they were sold into southern slavery – never to be seen by their families again. Pro-slavery circles saw this as a necessary business venture. A NYC abolitionist named Ruggles was a prime mover in the NYC Committee of Vigilance that was founded solely to combat this epidemic of child kidnapping.

Organized slavery did not come to an end in NY until 1827.  Following the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act thousands of Black Northerners fled to Canada. Ironically this was the same period when thousands of immigrants entered the US via NYC to escape religious and political persecution and seek economic opportunity – their gateway to freedom. This heinous and draconian law exposed the lie of the US as an asylum for those denied liberty in other countries. Following its enactment Northerner’s with no ties to the UR were forced to face and question the relationship between their conscience and obligations to the law. Many, even those who hated slavery, felt they must respect the law and override sympathy for fugitives.

Foner shares a telling quote of Abraham Lincoln as an example.  Lincoln hated “to see the poor creatures hunted down” but out of reverence for the rule of law “I bite my lip and keep quiet.” Later, in 1861, Lincoln devoted a portion of his first Inaugural address to the question of fugitive slaves and proposed changes in federal law that would secure greater legal rights for accused runaways. The fugitive slave issue, the crucial leadership role that fugitive slaves and free Blacks played, the Abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, all played key parts in leading Americans to face the moral and economic issues of slavery and opening the door to the Civil War.

As an organizer who has been immersed for many years in building a national grass roots movement of independents for political reform (IndependentVoting.org) I’m moved by the many past organizations, movements, and courageous individuals who fought to end slavery, for civil rights, human rights, for fairness and democracy; for the rights of all people to live in dignity.

I particularly appreciate Foner’s focus on a crucial aspect – base building. He highlights a significant activity of the UR. It carried out the unglamorous day to day grass roots organizing; fundraising, political and legal actions, writing, lecturing, not always underground – sometimes organizing in full view. As a matter of historical fact, says Foner, the UR’s strategic perspective was devoted to bringing about the end of slavery – rather than assisting fugitive slaves, and by its work, created a basis for organized resistance.

The ways in which Eric Foner has laid the groundwork to share this history is a measure of how his book continues to impact me. I’m glad to offer some of my initial impressions. I’m excited to hear from other P4P Book Club readers and of course, I look forward to our conversation with Eric Foner, led by Cathy Stewart.

June Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.org.  She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.


Politics for the People Conference Call

with Eric Foner

Sunday, April 19th at 7 pm EST

Tapping the Past

The current book selection of the Cathy L. Stewart Politics for the People Book Club is Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom, The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. The book is a fascinating look at the antislavery movement in New York City from the colonial era to the eve of the Civil War.

Sunday night as I made calls to let people know about the book and our April 19th conference call with the author I was really inspired that almost everyone I spoke to from Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania proudly told me of a stop on the Underground Railroad in their state or nearby town. To quote Foner “At a time of renewed national attention to the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, subjects that remain in many ways contentious, the underground railroad represents a moment in our history when black and white Americans worked together in a just cause.” (Page 15)

Dr. Jessie Fields at “Partnerships for Independent Power” March 2015

The book includes information from a newly discovered historical document: the detailed records of the abolitionist editor Sydney Howard Gay who helped fugitive slaves reach freedom in New England and Canada.  Gay’s Record of Fugitives, which he kept in 1855 and 1856, was discovered by an undergraduate history major, Madeline Lewis, as she was looking through Gay’s papers held at Columbia University. The discovery of Gay’s notebook has opened up the previously unknown history of the work of the Underground Railroad in New York City.

One of the most important movements that helped to undermine slavery, of which many powerful examples are given in the book, was that of slaves who were determined to be free and ran away. The renditions (recapture) of fugitive slaves in the North (which many violently opposed) raised serious questions about the extent to which the laws of slave states “extended” into the North and the relationship of the Constitution and the Federal Government to slavery.

“But the actions of fugitive slaves exemplified the political importance of slave resistance as a whole and raised questions central to antebellum politics, understood not simply as electoral campaigns but as the contest over slavery in the broad public sphere.” (Page 22)

The existence of the Underground Railroad and the escape of more and more slaves, which was more possible from the southern states immediately bordering the North, exacerbated growing sectional tensions that increased with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 and eventually led to the Civil War.

“…Gay’s record makes clear that by the 1850s New York had become a key site in a well-organized system whereby escaping slaves who reached Philadelphia from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia were forwarded to Gay’s office and then dispatched to underground railroad operatives in Albany, Boston, and Canada.” (Page 10)

The long battle against slavery and the participation of ordinary people is fundamental to how our democracy was build. The struggle for full voting rights in America is steeped in the history of the fight for freedom in America. Gateway to Freedom is a wonderful immersion into this history.

–Dr. Jessie Fields

Jessie Fields is a physician in Harlem and a founder of the NYC Independence Party. She serves on boards of Open Primaries and the All Stars Project.


Politics for the People Conference Call

with Eric Foner

Sunday, April 19th at 7 pm EST





Democracy Now with Eric Foner

On March 11th, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interviewed Eric Foner on Democracy Now.  They had a fascinating conversation about Gateway to Freedom.

Amy opened the interview asking Eric Foner what was the “gateway to freedom”?

ERIC FONER: “Well, that’s 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.”

Below is a nine minute excerpt from their dialogue.  (If you do not see the video, click here.)


If you would like to see the entire interview, you can watch it here.  Hope you are enjoying the book, let me know what you are thinking as you read.

Politics for the People Conference Call

with Eric Foner

Sunday, April 19th at 7 pm EST

NY Times Review of Gateway to Freedom


‘Gateway to Freedom,’ by Eric Foner

New Selection: GATEWAY to FREEDOM

I am excited to announce that our next selection will be Eric Foner’s latest book: Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.  He is one of this country’s most prominent historians and the author of over 20 books.  He is one of only two persons to serve as president of the three major professional organizations: the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians, and one of a handful to have won the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes in the same year.

In the first chapter, “Introduction: Rethinking the Underground Railroad”, the author describes Gateway to Freedom as follows:

     This book is a study of fugitive slaves and the underground railroad in New York City.  The nation’s major metropolis, New York before the Civil War consisted of Manhattan and the Bronx, with most of the population concentrated below Thirty-Fourth Street.  The city was a crucial way station in the metropolitan corridor through which fugitive slaves made their way from the Upper South through Philadelphia and on to upstate New York, New England, and Canada.  Since the underground railroad, by definition, can only be understood as an intercity, interregional enterprise, I also devote attention to other key sites in this northeastern network.  I discuss as well the national debate and federal legislation relating to fugitive slaves, and how the fugitive issue played a crucial role in precipitating the Civil War.”

I am looking forward to reading the book together!

The Politics for the People Conference Call

with Dr. Foner will be on April 19th at 7 pm.


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