Kocher on Pargas, 'Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Freedom in North America'

Damian Alan Pargas, ed.
Taylor Kocher

Damian Alan Pargas, ed. Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Freedom in North America. Southern Dissent Series. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018. Illustrations, tables. 334 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-5603-6.

Reviewed by Taylor Kocher (University of Maryland, College Park) Published on H-Nationalism (November, 2019) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54277

In recent years, scholars have produced a substantial amount of thought-provoking work to illuminate the complexity of slavery as an institution and further the collective understanding of its history. Conceptions of where, when, and by what means systems of enslavement were enforced and, in particular, how they were subverted have recently been expanded by the work of numerous historians, including Edward B. Rugemer (Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World [2018]) and Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge [2017]). This is further exemplified by the work of Damian Alan Pargas and his fellow contributors in Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Freedom in North America, the latest addition to the University Press of Florida’s Southern Dissent Series. This important volume illustrates a larger, transformative trend as it endeavors to alter the lens through which we view the history of slavery throughout North America. To achieve this task, the contributors offer geographically diverse work that situates North America as its own entity with unique “sanctuary spaces.” These areas in turn served as safe havens for captives who fled their enslavement to locales near and far in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The goal of this volume is a lofty one: to incorporate previously unconsidered geographies into more widely acknowledged narratives of slavery and freedom. To accomplish this goal, the authors employ two distinct methodological approaches. The first is to widen the scope of their analysis in their discussion of freedom seeking in North America, which they do by breaking with the more traditional focus on regional or national conceptions of slavery and freedom. Instead, the contributions in this edition are set in spaces both in the heart of the United States and along its northern, southern, and maritime borders. The second method employed by the authors is the categorization of varying areas into spaces of formal, semiformal, and informal freedom. In contextualizing slave flight in relation to the legal presence or absence of slavery in a given location, Pargas and his fellow contributors highlight the inherent variation in antebellum perceptions of freedom.

The volume is organized geographically, with the first four chapters focusing on spaces of freedom in the northern United States and Canada. The first essay, written by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, explores black self-emancipation in the years during and immediately after the American Revolution. Black Loyalists, he argues, served as “ordinary abolitionists” as they fled to sites of formal and semiformal freedom in British territory (p. 23). This migration in turn constituted an act of abolitionism, thus expanding scholars’ preconceived notions of what abolitionism was and how it developed over time. Hodges then connects self-emancipation in the colonial period to the emergence of the Underground Railroad, as he considers them both manifestations of the ways African Americans sought freedom on their own terms. Gordon S. Barker follows with an analysis of the social and legal aspects of racism following the Somerset case in the safe haven that is now present-day Ontario. In expanding the refugee slave experience in North America to include Canada, Barker makes evident that the end of slavery in the British Empire did not bring an end to anti-black sentiment in the region originally seen as a “refuge for the oppressed” (p. 35). While Canada served as a site of legal freedom for those enslaved in America, prejudice and discrimination would ultimately plague black Ontarians through the middle of the nineteenth century. This would largely not subside until the end of slavery in the United States prompted scores of freedom seekers to return to the country that was built by theirs and their ancestors’ stolen labor.

In the chapters that follow, Roy E. Finkenbine and Matthew Pinsker further develop the means and methods by which refugee slaves sought freedom. Focusing on Indian Country in northwestern Ohio, Finkenbine charts the development of the Underground Railroad as a “triracial enterprise” due to the efforts of Native Americans in assisting runaway slaves in their pursuit of freedom. In Indian Country, he argues that Native Americans often performed the same functions as black and white settlers elsewhere in the United States along the Underground Railroad as they aided runaways’ transition from slavery to freedom. As he illustrates, indigenous men and women played an integral role in fugitive slaves’ efforts to leave slavery behind, whether by allowing the freedom seekers to travel through their land or offering food and shelter along their journey. Where Finkenbine’s essay ends in the middle of the nineteenth century, Matthew Pinsker provides insight into the controversial and largely ineffective 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Noting the relatively low number of convictions relating to violations of the 1850 law, Pinsker argues that the text of the law itself was ignored or misunderstood from its inception. He places particular emphasis on the lack of instances of recapture and rendition to come to the conclusion that the Fugitive Slave Law did not inspire significant black migration on the eve of the Civil War as scholars had previously determined.

The focus then shifts to the potential for self-emancipation that refugee slaves created for themselves within the slaveholding South. Damian Alan Pargas, Viola Müller, and Sylviane Diouf outline opportunities available to fugitives, whether by hiding in plain sight in crowded urban areas or living in dense forests and swampland in search of freedom. Pargas discusses the phenomenon of former slaves endeavoring to pass for free in the South, thus establishing a sense of informal freedom. He provides a poignant argument that the primary motivation for illegal life within the slave states was the need to remain in close contact with enslaved family members, and this motivation trumped desires for legal or formal freedom. Rather than fleeing to spaces of formal freedom elsewhere in North America, the actors in Pargas’s work often found that southern cities provided the perfect environment to serve as “gateways to freedom” (p. 130). Müller expands on this analysis of refugee slaves in southern cities and criticizes the paucity of material about runaways who remained in the South. Focusing in particular on Richmond, Virginia, she cites the city’s large black population and the local willingness to exploit the illegal labor of refugees as some of the reasons for its successful camouflaging of freedom seekers in the antebellum period. Combined with the ever-changing nature of urban life that helped to keep unlawful residents hidden and the tendency of Virginians to blame the North for any problems with refugees they encountered at home, these factors illustrate through one specific case study that “illegal freedom in the middle of slavery was possible” (p. 161).

Moving beyond the geographies of urban areas, Diouf examines the ability of fugitive slaves to make their lives on the edges of slaveholding societies. She studies what she refers to as the “most invisible” maroons whose stories can be reconstructed through the use of memoirs or interviews of former slaves conducted by the Works Progress Administration. For the escapees in this essay, sacrifice was a necessary consequence of freedom, and the family unit was a catalyst both for keeping borderland maroons close to farms and plantations and for helping to conceal them. Both blood relatives and the maroons who bonded over their new lives in the wilderness proved to be integral to the borderland experience, as Diouf notes. In doing so, she echoes a theme of these three chapters: that although it was rife with threats of discovery and near-constant danger, freedom was nevertheless achieved within the confines of the antebellum South. Simultaneously, it also constituted a powerful threat to the institution in taking place in the heart of the South itself.

In subsequent chapters, Kyle Ainsworth, Mekala Audain, and James David Nichols examine freedom in the Texas-Mexico borderlands. This area held the promise of both formal and informal freedom for fugitive slaves who, in a similar fashion to those in the volume’s previous section, chose not to head to the North. Ainsworth’s study emphasizes the importance of run-of-the-mill runaway slave ads and makes use of the Texas Runaway Slave Project dataset to gather new information about escapees’ experiences. Employing a novel approach grounded in newspaper metadata, he argues that it is possible to recover the narratives of fugitives by taking into account factors like the tendency of ads to be repeated in a given publication, or the time between a slave running away and the emergence of ads seeking their return. Ainsworth’s work makes clear that for historians, it is not only the most exceptional subjects that should warrant our attention. Rather, those men, women, and children who would otherwise be written off as little more than statistics may well hold the key to a more holistic understanding of slavery. Audain furthers the study of Texas runaways by tracking exactly how freedom seekers made their way to Mexico in the midst of a series of conditions that, as she contends, uniquely shaped their experiences. These factors, including the vast and ever-changing nature of Texas’s topography, the constant threat of military presence, and the presence of Comanche Indians all challenged the search for freedom along the Texas-Mexico border. She notes that among the struggles faced by runaways in this region was the lack of an established abolitionist network like their northern counterparts who were aided in their travels by the Underground Railroad. However, local communication networks proved to be pivotal both for their ability to perpetuate successful escapes and to gather information about those who failed. Equally important in her essay is her assessment that studies of environment and terrain are often not present in historical research on freedom seeking and slave fugitivity in North America.

While Audain covers the arduous journey to Mexico, Nichols discusses what became of refugees once they arrived in that site of formal freedom. Achieving freedom in Mexico, he argues, was more complicated than simply crossing the Rio Grande. Even with the acquisition of legal freedom, fugitives endured the challenges posed by international slave catchers and other filibusterers who plagued the “lawless borderlands,” a space Nichols aptly compares to a swinging gate teetering constantly between bondage and freedom (p. 256). Furthermore, free life on Mexican soil often brought notions of reciprocity to the state and the refugees’ neighbors came to expect good behavior in exchange for liberty. This is not to say, as Nichols shows, that all was lost for fugitives in Mexico. The 1850s saw Mexico work to secure the border and to cement the protection of runaway slaves, in order to defend its sovereignty.

The volume’s final contribution switches gears to focus on the acquisition of freedom at sea with a chapter by Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie. Asserting that debates over slavery and freedom stretched beyond the national borders of the United States in the nineteenth century, Kerr-Ritchie turns to the Coastal Passage, which encompassed maritime trade routes from the Chesapeake to the Gulf South. The experience of slaves during their relocation along the Coastal Passage highlights for scholars the notion that the closure of the international slave trade in 1808 did not put an end to slaves’ experiences at sea. Rather, as the cases of the Creole and Enterprise, among others, show, the Coastal Passage was a site of resistance and antislavery sentiment made possible by the existence of established sites of formal freedom in the midst of the slaveholding Atlantic.

The well-researched and wide-ranging essays complicate our understanding of how, when, and where fugitive slaves throughout North America risked life and limb in search of freedom, whether formal, informal, or semiformal. The authors successfully expand the borders of freedom seeking to move beyond the United States and into Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean while simultaneously providing invaluable insight into slave fugitivity within the American South. In addition, they frame freedom as a concept in relation to the law in a successful and thought-provoking way. While the volume could have perhaps been more balanced in its geographical coverage of its subject area, it is nevertheless innovative and will prove useful for early and experienced scholars alike. Its chapters taken separately or the volume in its entirety will be especially useful in undergraduate seminars or graduate coursework on studies of slavery, freedom, justice and lawlessness, or borderlands.

Citation: Taylor Kocher. Review of Pargas, Damian Alan, ed., Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Freedom in North America. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54277

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