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Two Important New Books on the Underground Railroad in New York City Complement One Another
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
S.H. Gay Descendant to appear with Don Papson at Old Ship Church in Hingham, Massachusetts
Social action will be the theme at the Old Ship Church in Hingham, Massachusetts on Sunday, March 22nd.
Elizabeth Gay Pierce Fuchs, a great-granddaughter of Sidney Howard Gay, will join the author at a noon forum in the Old Ship Parish House.
A resident of Huntington, NY, Mrs. Fuchs is a direct descendant of Ebenezer Gay and Governor William Bradford, a signer of the Mayflower compact.
Her abolitionist ancestors, Warner Mifflin, Daniel Neall, and Elizabeth and Sydney Howard Gay, have inspired Mrs. Fuchs to be involved in philanthropic endeavors throughout her life. She is president of the Cold Spring Harbor Library Foundation, where she helped to raise the money to build a much needed new building; a member of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America; and the president of the Friends of Sulgrave Manor, major funders of a 16th century English Tudor manor house built by George Washington’s fifth great-grandfather, Lawrence Washington.
She is proud of her ancestor’s participation in the Underground Railroad and described Secret Lives as “enlightening and moving.”
The forum will follow the 10:30 service across the street in Old Ship Church where Rev. Ken Read Brown’s sermon will be “Still Learning from Selma”—reflections fifty years after the Selma civil rights march .
This week McFarland is running a 20% sale on all of its Underground titles including Secret Lives. Go to (http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/2015/02/weekly-deal-the-underground-railroad/),
February 12, 2015
Today, two articles were published in Plattsburgh, New York, newspapers about Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad.
Robin Caudell's article, “Nitty Gritty of New York City Underground Railroad Agents,” for the Plattsburgh Press Republican, can be accessed at:
Teah Dowling’s article, “Railroad to Freedom,” for the Lake Champlain Weekly, can be accessed at
It is extraordinary that two books are simultaneously bringing Sydney Howard Gay’s riveting and remarkable 1855-1856 Record of Fugitives to light.
Eric Foner’s comprehensive Gateway to Freedom, which was recently released, highlights accounts from Gay’s Record. Secret Lives is the first book to publish all of Gay’s stories and to compare them with stories William Still wrote of the same fugitives before he forwarded them to Gay. Secret Lives has full accounts of the George Kirk and Lemmon cases which made Gay’s chief collaborator, Louis Napoleon, the most famous black Underground Railroad agent in New York City. Secret Lives also contains the first Underground Railroad biographies of Sydney Howard Gay and Napoleon ever published.
Secret Lives discloses how Gay transformed himself from a defender of slaveholders’ rights into an abolitionist. It follows the bitter conflict which severed his friendship with Frederick Douglass, explains why Douglass acknowledged the work of Napoleon and ignored Gay, and it reveals why Gay and William Still did not recognize Frederick Douglass’ Underground Railroad work.
Gateway to Freedom and Secret Lives are complementary studies. Gateway to Freedom whets the appetite. Secret lives fulfills our need to know more.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is working on a project that is related to the study that produced Secret Lives. Entitled, "Family Ties on the Underground Railroad," it weaves together the manuscript journal and published book of William Still, who was the chairman of Philadelphia's Vigilance Committee in the mid-nineteenth century.
Its initial phase focuses on the experiences of three enslaved families who passed through Philadelphia in their journeys to freedom: the Shephards, the Taylors, and the Wanzers. These individuals were forwarded by Still to Gay and their assistance is recorded in the Gay “Record.” According to their website, it includes transcripts and digital facsimiles from Still's works, carefully researched biographies, and other materials, much like we have done in producing Secret Lives. Go to their website to learn more by clicking on the picture below.
Without Tom, Secret Lives would never have been completed. His expert advise was invaluable. Secret Lives is so much more than my narrative about the lives of Gay and Napoleon and the key roles they placed in the Underground Railroad. Tom’s annotations of Gay’s Record of Fugitives and his indexes will inspire not only historians, but everyone who wants to know what it was like to travel on the Underground Railroad and to be aided by strangers. I have consulted my copy of Tom’s The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region (2004) so many times, the binding has come apart. Fellow researchers have told me their copies are in the came condition. I anticipate that researchers and historians will consult Tom’s annotations and his indexes for Secret Lives again and again.
Tom and I have admired your work for many years, and when you accepted our invitation to write a foreward for Secret Lives, we were overjoyed because you put down some of the first tracks in this research. When Tom sent me your email in which you said you loved the manuscript, I couldn’t wait to read your foreword. It soon followed, and when I read it, I was overwhelmed. You speak sincerely and eloquently to the soul of Secret Lives. You understand and appreciate what we set out to accomplish. That means the world to us.