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 Using Sydney Howard Gay’s newly discovered Record of Fugitives of 1855 and 1856 and other historical documents and records Eric Foner captures the stories of fugitive slaves who reached freedom with the aid of black and white abolitionists.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.

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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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