Two recent books address the Underground Railroad saga, emphasizing its workings throughout the eastern United States especially concentrating on its operation in New York City. I highly recommend Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015) and Don Papson and Tom Calarco’s Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City: Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives (McFarland, 2015). Each book represents an outstanding contribution to our understanding of this clandestine system….
The incredible detail, put down by Gay, of how this clandestine business worked in the mid-1850s is one of the most significant finds about the Underground Railroad ever uncovered. Included are the previously unknown efforts of black “agent” Louis Napoleon who worked as Gay’s right-hand man. In his book, Foner includes useful charts and maps and he skillfully weaves into his text Gay’s remarkably recorded revelations.
Don Papson and Tom Calarco are Underground Railroad researchers, each of whom is a past recipient of an Underground Railroad Free Press Prize. Their new book, like Foner’s, lays out the Underground Railroad story throughout the East. This work is organized as a documentary history and therein we find one of the major differences between the two books. Papson and Calarco meticulously present information that requires one to become familiar with numerous pieces of correspondence, sources, and accounts that are often quoted at length. They aptly use Sydney Howard Gay’s records and notes to show New York City’s connections to a wide-ranging network from eastern southern slave states into Pennsylvania, New York and New England. They discuss the overlapping relationship of black and white agents, but also present, as does Foner, a vivid account of the squabbling and infighting among various anti-slavery groups, particularly the loathing that existed between William L. Garrison’s Boston abolitionist band and Lewis Tappan’s New York City cohorts. (Both books disclose, however, that these differences were put aside when it was required to aid escaping slaves.)
This book’s description of Gay’s relationship with Louis Napoleon is often quite moving and leaves no doubt about the central role this black agent played ushering fugitives out of the city towards safe ty. The authors illuminate the crucial part played by a number of militant black abolitionists and “station masters” like David Ruggles, Samuel Ringgold Ward, Henry Highland Garnet, Jermain W. Loguen and others, including the better known Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
An outstanding appendix gives the reader the opportunity to read in chronological order when, where, how, and to whom fugitives were sent. In some instances, this chart was put together by using New York City newspapers to pinpoint the arrival of ships captained by men who had a history of transporting escapees and matching this information with Gay’s notations. Any student of the Underground Railroad will welcome the opportunity to pour over this appendix
The most telling message that emerges from both books is the reminder that fugitivevslaves demonstrated incredible courage when they fle…each book is a blockbuster and should be added to the library bookshelves of important publications about the Underground Railroad story
Owen Muelder, Director of the Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Center at Knox College, from the Underground Railroad Free Press, March 2015. Vol. 10, number 53