Author Interview--Viola Müller (Escape to the City) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Viola Müller to talk about her new book, Escape to the City: Fugitive Slaves in the Antebellum Urban South, published by the University of North Carolina Press in October 2022.

Viola Müller received her Ph.D. from Leiden University in the Netherlands. She is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies, University of Bonn, Germany. She has also published essays in Journal of Global Slavery and Labor History.

Viola, how did you come to write a book about escaped slaves in Southern cities?

VM: I was very attracted to studying people who escaped conditions of danger, injustice, and hopelessness because these issues are also present today. Fugitive slaves are a fascinating topic because they allow historians to stress hope within the usually very depressing, disturbing, and simply horrendous accounts that necessarily make up social histories of enslavement. And while fugitive slaves who fled to the northern states have dominated the historiography for many decades, attention for other geographies has been increasing, such as Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean. Yet, remarkably, historical accounts on fugitive slaves in the cities of the South are still largely absent, although some historians (for example, Betty Woods, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger) did write about them briefly. With this book, I aim to fill this gap in the historiography. I studied Baltimore, Charleston, Richmond, and New Orleans from the early nineteenth century until shortly before the Civil War.

What do you argue in Escape to the City?

VM: Escape to the City is about men and women who escaped enslavement and went to antebellum southern cities. One important finding that emerged by studying their survival networks is that they were often supported by individuals but I also want to stress that they were taken in by urban communities of color as a whole. Most fugitives attempted to pass as free in southern cities and to do this, they camouflaged within the growing free Black populations.

I think that one of the main innovations of this book is closely studying the relationship between the newcomers and their host societies. I became aware of the indispensable role that the free Black communities played in this story, which led me to de-emphasize individual strategies of fleeing people and, instead, to reconceptualize this kind of fugitivity as collective action. This, once more, attests to resistance to slavery as lying at the heart of the Black experience before the Civil War.

Aside from this, I tried to look at these four cities comprehensively and see what role urbanization, work opportunities, the demographic composition, and other factors played in creating “spaces of refuge” for fugitive slaves. What I found is that these spaces were created by the interplay of different urban groups: Fugitives, their allies, and their host societies crafted them deliberately. Slaveholders were not effective enough in preventing flight, local authorities did not attribute sufficient importance to the issue, and urban employers benefitted from it.

Before we get into the book, I want to briefly talk about methodology. First, why the four cities--New Orleans, Baltimore, Charleston, and Richmond? What made them useful for your study?

VM: The four cities were among the largest in the antebellum era. The rate of urbanization in the South was lower and slower than in the North but urban centers nevertheless grew steadily. By 1860, Baltimore had a population of over 200,000 and counted 26,000 free Black people. New Orleans had 170,000 inhabitants with 11,000 free people of color and more than 13,000 enslaved. Charleston and Richmond were smaller and housed relatively more enslaved people. The cities were different enough to allow me to identify a number of aspects that determined the success of runaways. This concerned, among others, local race relations, the structure of the labor markets (including urban slavery), degrees of industrialization, and local divisions and contestations of power.

Choosing them also had practical reasons. That fugitive slaves in the urban South had not received much scholarly attention is also related to the scarcity of sources. I therefore consciously chose large cities that produced more court and police records, had more local newspapers, and received more fugitives than smaller places with the hope to find as much information about them as possible.

Related to the previous question, you are looking at people who purposefully wanted to disappear in order to avoid slave catchers--where did you find sources to tell their stories? Did you have to be more creative in reading existing sources to locate these refugees of slavery?

VM: I realized that the fact that they are hard to find in the archives already testifies to their success. And despite the scarcity, there were luckily enough sources like runaway slave ads, legislative ordinances, and jail and police ledgers that clearly show that fugitive slaves were in the urban South. From there, I went on to draw “reverse conclusions” from those people who were at risk (and were seen) or failed (and were caught) to shed light on those who made it.

This approach is inspired by the methods of migration studies and also fits with your question, in which you call them “refugees.” Readers of the book will see that I make a number of parallels between fugitive slaves in southern cities and present-day undocumented migrants, and I would definitely say that I read my sources through this lens.

To just give you one example, I stress that the new lives of runaways in the slaveholding South had no basis in law, and I also show that this dimension of illegality expanded to other parts of the Black population. When manumission schemes were curtailed from the early nineteenth century on, a lot of people were released from slavery unofficially and informally and could later on not prove their freedom. Starting with Virginia in 1806, a number of southern states stipulated that manumitted slaves had to emigrate, but few actually did. And so, over the course of antebellum era, large parts of the free Black population came to reside in the South “in contravention” of the law, as it is formulated in the sources.

With these parallels in mind, the book pays a lot of attention to Black southerners—both fugitive slaves and free people of color—as being vulnerable to discretionary policing in the cities and susceptible to coercive labor. This led me to write extensively about the urban landscape of work and the political economy in the cities.

I was fascinated by the boldness of acting free to gain freedom, how do we have to imagine this? Was there no policing? Did not such an action put the actual free people of color in greater danger when runaway slaves acted free? 

VM: These are great questions! Southern cities did have police. In the early antebellum period, city guards still resembled militias to an extent. In the following decades, policing developed from this informal and communal watch system to a local police force system. On paper, the surveillance plans of the police looked pretty thorough at first glance. For example, the patrolling plan of New Orleans’ night watch of 1840 stipulated surveillance of almost every street in what today is the French Quarter. But there were two problems. First, patrolling concentrated only in the most central parts of the city and, second, watchmen were lax in their duties. There is a lot of evidence that many neglected their duties because police work was very exhausting and they were poorly paid.

That being said, police did capture runaways. This is very clear. Fugitive slaves had the hardest time in Charleston, which had the strictest policing system. This was due to its small size and the natural limitations of the peninsula it was built on. (Until 1850, the city of Charleston only encompassed the parts below Calhoun Street.) But fugitives in Charleston would typically not try to pass as free. The free community of color was small and the fact that people rather pretended to be self-hired slaves shows their very realistic assessment of their situation.

Whether passing as free or as a self-hired enslaved person, there were a number of things that people should do, and particularly not do, and it all revolved around not drawing attention. Besides clothing, speech, and general behavior, runaways would not be found drunk on the streets, they would steer away from crime, avoid conflict with neighbors, confrontations with employers or any White person, and they would try not to be outside after curfew. Rather, men and women tried to find jobs with a low profile, and they needed to construct a plausible story about their past.

There was indeed a degree of danger for the urban Black populations in their role as receiving communities for fugitives. Harboring or aiding fugitives could have severe consequences. When police checked on people because they were on the look-out for runaways, they sometimes also came across free Blacks who had no freedom papers or were illegal residents, as I explain in the previous answer. Being involved in slave flight meant being involved in resistance to slavery, and this by definition included risks.