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(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

The formidable legend of the Underground Railroad (in which thousands of slaves reached the North with the help of Quaker and abolitionist "conductors") notwithstanding, successful fugitives depended mostly on their own resources. By the time most runaways made contact with abolitionists, often by chance, they had already completed the most perilous part of the journey. Very few, however, succeeded in reaching the Promised Land. To escape from the Deep South was nearly impossible: the distances to be traversed were too great, the people too hostile, and the geography unfamiliar. Many runaways had never been away from the farms or plantations on which they were born and worked, and if they were to succeed, they would have to travel by night.

Most runaways, Franklin and Schweninger conclude, actually remained in their immediate neighborhoods for various periods of time. Many stayed away for a few days and then returned on their own (often after visiting loved ones on neighboring plantations). Many were quickly tracked down, and still others took to "lying out" with other runaways -- encamped along rivers and streams or in caves, dense forests, or swampy areas -- and sustaining themselves through a clandestine economy based on stolen goods. Whereas a few runaways remained at large for years in the vicinity of their owners, others boldly sought to negotiate terms of work and life that would ensure their return and future labor -- labor so valuable that in some cases owners actually agreed to negotiate. Many runaways fled to the nearest town or city, hoping to elude their pursuers by vanishing into black neighborhoods.

The published narratives of runaway slaves often reveal spectacular escapes. Henry Brown, of Virginia, for example, had a friend ship him in a wooden crate to Philadelphia, where he was delivered to the office of the local anti-slavery society -- alive and free. This story finds no place in Runaway Slaves,but it underscores by exception the point made by Franklin and Schweninger: "For most, the anonymity they achieved was ephemeral.... The great majority of runaways left neither dramatically nor in the end successfully." Escape usually ended in detection, arrest, imprisonment, a return to the owners, certain and often brutal punishment, and, sometimes, immediate sale. In addition to advertising in newspapers, owners employed trained "negro dogs," mercenary "negro catchers," vigilance committees, militias, local, state, and federal officials, and the entire judicial and police system (lawyers, sheriffs, constables, jailers, justices of the peace, and judges). The much-feared slave patrols ("patterolers"), often made up of local nonslaveholding whites, occupied a pivotal place in black folklore.

Run, nigger, run, patteroler'll
     ketch yer,

Hit yer thirty-nine and sware'
     e didn' tech yer.

Runaways did not accept capture easily. If cornered, they often resisted, returning blow for blow, and sometimes they prevailed. If captured, they might refuse to divulge their owners' names, choosing instead to die in vermin-ridden "slave pens." Organized bands of runaways evoked fears of slave insurrection; reports or rumors of pillaging and looting could bring terror to entire communities.

As Franklin and Schweninger suggest, the runaway placed the entire system of slavery on trial, and "it was a rare owner, large or small, who could boast that he had never had a slave abscond from his farm or plantation." The punishments for runaways -- often "fiendish," as the authors say, and sometimes fatal -- were meant to impress upon the entire slave community the futility of any effort to achieve freedom. The scars and disfigurement suffered by slaves at the hands of their owners or overseers -- described in meticulous detail in advertisements -- testified to the often uncontrollable rage of men who considered themselves compassionate, God-fearing masters unable to contain the rebels.

Although they recognized the odds against them and the punishments they faced, and were uncertain what fate awaited them even if they succeeded, many men and women persisted in their quest for a life out of bondage. Despite the Fugitive Slave Acts and other harsh laws, the flow of runaways increased in the 1840s and 1850s, along with violent resistance to capture. Advertisements and petitions abounded with references to runaways as "headstrong," "obdurate," "intractable," "impudent," "malicious," "rebellious," "uncontrollable," "unmanageable," and "ungovernable." In the records kept by slaveowners accusations of betrayal and ingratitude accompanied the news that a once "faithful & excellent & capable Servant" or a slave esteemed as one of the "family" had fled "without any cause," "without provocation," or "without any unjust or injurious treatment." One plantation mistress simply could not comprehend the loss of a servant "so honest, so faithful, so truthful, so devoted to my interests that I trusted everything to her." Runaways taught masters and mistresses that they had mistaken outward demeanor for inner feelings, docility for contentment, and deference and accommodation for submission. That revelation would return to haunt former slaveowners during and after the Civil War, when those they had once claimed as property became unrecognizable men and women.

FRANKLIN and Schweninger have largely ignored autobiographical narratives and oral histories, choosing to rely instead on documents that other scholars have not fully utilized: notices of runaways in newspapers, broadsides, and handbills; petitions to southern legislatures and county courts; and other legal and judicial records. These sources, they explain, enhance the credibility of their study: advertisers and petitioners seeking the apprehension of runaways had an investment in providing accurate and candid information.

But heavily relying on these sources, albeit explicable on scholarly grounds, limits our view of the world of runaway slaves. Seldom do we hear in this book the words and thoughts contained in the many reminiscences and autobiographies that have withstood previous critical scrutiny. Seldom are we exposed to folklore that grew up around runaways -- the songs, stories, and legends passed from generation to generation, which occupy such a prominent place in black cultural memory. Tales of how runaways eluded or bested their pursuers did wonders for black pride and helped to give black Americans a history. Being able to draw on this rich, expressive record would enable readers to appreciate more fully the lives and emotions of the men and women who occupy center stage in this book. The stories told by Henry Bibb, Henry Brown, William Wells Brown, William and Ellen Craft, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Jermain Loguen, and Austin Steward, among others, of why and how they fled, how they perceived their chances, how they viewed their owners, what strategies they employed, what thoughts sustained them, and what happened to them in freedom would have given this important work much-needed soul.

What Franklin and Schweninger have achieved nonetheless remains impressive. No other study has documented as fully the identities of runaway slaves and the control they challenged and sometimes eluded. Runaway Slavesaffords an intimate and devastating examination of slavery -- of the people who managed it and the people who defied it, and the lengths to which they would go to preserve their property or to secure their freedom. The study underscores the extraordinary amount of attention, energy, and legislation expended on keeping black people in their place. Few readers of this book will be able to subscribe to the notion of slaves as acquiescent partners in their subjugation.

The obsession with racial control never really diminished, and in the view of Henry M. Turner, a black clergyman at the end of the nineteenth century, nothing more compellingly refuted the charge of inferiority: "More laws have been enacted by the different legislatures of the country," he wrote, "and more judicial decisions have been delivered and proclaimed against this piece of inferiority called negro than have been issued against any people since time began." Given the attempts to suppress and control his race, Turner concluded, "it would appear that the negro is the greatest man on earth."

Runaways did not bring down slavery, though the issues they raised and the problems they created helped to bring on the war that would destroy slavery. By their very presence and persistence they testified to the resilience of the human spirit in a nation whose Constitution and laws sanctioned slave catchers. As much as any of the Revolutionary patriots and Founding Fathers, we need to recall these plantation rebels and outlaws -- mostly unsung in their own time -- who individually or collectively tried, in the face of overwhelming odds, to give meaning to abstract notions of independence and freedom. In Runaway Slaves,John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger help to redeem the rightful place of these men and women in the historic struggle for justice and human dignity, even as this nation continues to come to grips with the consequences of its contradictory legacies of liberty and slavery, freedom and repression.

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.


Leon F. Litwack is the Morrison Professor of American History at the University of California at Berkeley. His book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (1980) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 199; Forgotten Heroes of Freedom - 99.11 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 5; page 116-120.