Booked: On Their Way to Freedom

Booked: On Their Way to Freedom

An interview with Eric Foner on the underground railroad in New York, how history helps us to understand change, and why the left should talk more about freedom.

An illustration from William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1872)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. At our first event for Solidarity Subscribers in May, Tim spoke with Eric Foner about his latest book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (W.W. Norton and Company, 2015). Click the play button above to listen to a recording of their conversation, or read an edited version below.

Timothy Shenk: Who was Louis Napoleon?

Eric Foner: Louis Napoleon was a black man born in New York City in 1800. If you really know New York state history, you will know that meant he was born after the passage of the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1799. He was born to a slave mother, but would become free after serving a long apprenticeship for his mother’s owner. After he became free in 1820, he became the point person on the streets for what is called the Underground Railroad. I use that term because it’s unavoidable and it’s useful, but one shouldn’t think of it as some giant network of highly organized routes and stations and codes and tunnels. Napoleon was on the streets. He went to the the East River docks, and met slaves who had stowed away on ships.

There were thousands of ships going up and down the Atlantic coast. Some ship owners, without being anti-slavery, were willing to take money from slaves to hide a few on their ship and drop them off in New York. And when they did, Louis Napoleon was out there looking for them. By that time it was illegal to bring slaves to New York. Napoleon found out these slaves were brought here by the owners—he was able to go to court and get writs of habeas corpus to get lists of slaves captured in the state—and the judge freed them all, about seven or eight of them.

Napoleon is an anonymous person, unknown to history, who actually played a very important role in the history of this city and in helping many hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves pass through New York on their way to freedom in Canada.

Shenk: The book is filled with people like Napoleon. More than any of your other work, this is driven by narrative. What motivated that decision?

Foner: Most times, you try to write a book and you start out with a question, a problem, an invitation. You get an idea and then you figure out: what are the sources? What am I going to need to do my research? This book occurred the opposite way, through a student at Columbia who was working on her senior thesis in the papers of an abolitionist called Sidney Howard Gay, eighty boxes of whose papers are at Columbia. She said, “You know, professor, it’s not really relevant to me, but in Box 72 there’s this document about fugitive slaves you might be interested in.”

And there were these two little notebooks in which Gay kept a record, it’s called the Record of Fugitives, for two years in 1855 and 1856. He kept a record of over 200 men, women, and children—slaves—who passed through New York City. Being a journalist, he interviewed them, and so you get the voices through him of these people at that moment. There’s a lot of memoirs written about the Underground Railroad, but those are not totally reliable. Gay asked them: who were their owners? How did they run away? Why did they run away? Who helped them? It was these stories that really fascinated me. Ninety percent of the people mentioned in that document disappear from history, but you can actually track them down a little bit.

So I tried to figure out as much as I could to tell the stories of these people who were unknown to history up to this point. The reviews of this book that I like the best are the ones that say, “This book is like a novel. I can’t put it down.” It was a slightly different way of writing, but I got so interested in these stories, that’s how it turned out.

Shenk: As you write in the introduction, the Underground Railroad was a quasi-public institution. These people were coordinating an illegal activity but doing it in public. Can you explain how that worked?

Foner: Yes, the Underground Railroad is part of the abolitionist movement. And, by the way, there were very few people involved in it. It wasn’t this giant operation. In New York City, there were no more than a dozen people at a time actively engaged in helping fugitive slaves. There’s a literature going way back which gives you a picture of this gigantic network—it wasn’t. Nonetheless, those people were very active and quite successful, but they were also doing other things. They were going to conventions, they were circulating petitions, they were giving speeches. In New York, it was pretty secret because, and this surprises people, New York City was a very pro-Southern town. It was completely tied into the cotton South economically. It’s secret and not secret: that’s the key point. When I say it’s a dozen people, there are many other people who know what to do. There are black dock workers. There are people working in hotels, in people’s homes as domestic workers, and they know what to do if they meet a slave who wants to become free. They see a guy on a ship and they know to go to Napoleon.

So it’s not exactly secret, but it’s secret enough that it’s not totally, flamboyantly public, whereas up in Syracuse, for example, it was completely public. One of the guys mentioned in Gay’s record of agents of the Underground Railroad was a guy named Ira Cobb in Syracuse. I looked him up in the census, and he lives in the same housing complex with the sheriff of Syracuse, and he’s hiding slaves! In New York, it was a little different and it was dangerous. It wasn’t that dangerous for Sidney Howard Gay, but it was very dangerous for fugitive slaves. There were slave catchers roaming the streets of New York all the way up to the Civil War.

Shenk: All of the people in this book are linked by the attempt to effect local change, to actually achieve something. These are quite optimistic stories, which is a departure from the more pessimistic tone more recent historians have tended to adopt.

Foner: The basic question that I have always been interested in, in all my books, is how change happens. How do things change and who creates change? Why does it succeed at some points and not succeed at other points? That’s what interests me in studying history. Lincoln is in the same boat at a different level than these Underground Railroad people, but it’s all about what the circumstances are of processes and actions of people that produce social change. Underground Railroad people did not end slavery. The number of people who escaped—I estimate a thousand a year out of the South out of 4 million slaves total—this was not destroying the institution of slavery. But the fugitive slavery issue became a major catalyst of this crisis and of the coming Civil War, so these people actually had a pretty powerful impact on events.

I grew up in what they call an old left family in the 1950s. Whatever one’s criticisms of the old left, the Communist Party left, one of the things they absolutely insisted on was the centrality of the black experience in America, and that racism was the fundamental problem of American society. Later on that became much more mainstream in the academic world, but who invented African-American history in the first place? It was either black scholars, many of them, or white communists like my uncle, or Herbert Aptheker, or others who focused on the black experience as central at a time when it was completely ignored in the mainstream university.

W.E.B. Du Bois was a friend of my family. Paul Robeson was a friend of my family. I met these people when I was very young. There’s a picture my mother has of me on the shoulders of Paul Robeson when I’m two years old. So this was just second nature. I just absorbed that idea that the black experience, race in America, was absolutely central. And then of course I was in college and graduate school in the 1960s, and the civil rights revolution was taking place in the street. I was lucky enough to have a great teacher who assigned Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in a seminar (even though the chairman of the department told him not to do it).

This has been pretty important in all of my work, but it’s about trying to put it in a context. It’s not as if I’m a scholar of African-American history. I just consider myself an American historian, and this is a central part of American history.

Shenk: If you’re encountering the civil rights movement at the end of the fifties and through the sixties,  that has to affect your scholarship. And I think one consequence is your concern for citizenship and for politics.

Foner: I don’t know if I can write my own intellectual history, but I think in an odd way my works somehow reflect these two influences that shaped me. One is my family background, and the other is Richard Hofstadter, who I worked with as an undergraduate and who then supervised my PhD dissertation. These Hofstadter questions about politics, about political culture, political ideas, how they’re related to society, this is what has shaped much of my writing, but I’m doing it in a different way than Hofstadter. Hofstadter could have cared less about social movements. In fact he was frightened of them. He had been in the Communist Party in the late 1930s, but by the sixties, like many liberals, he had become very frightened of popular politics as being irrational, so he was not interested in those kinds of things except to denounce them. Coming out of the sixties, I was much more interested in whether social movements had actually produced change.

Shenk: I’ve known you for a while, and when I was thinking about what I should ask you today, I realized that I didn’t know the answer to either of these questions. The first is: would you self-identify as a liberal? The second is: would you self-identify as a Marxist?

Foner: I would not self-identify as a liberal. My very good friend Steve Hahn, in his book A Nation Under Our Feet, wrote, “I’m challenging the liberal integrationist history of this period”—footnote: Eric Foner! So I sent him an email saying, “You know, Hahn, you really know how to hurt a guy.” I don’t mean being called an integrationist—I am an integrationist. But I don’t want to be called a liberal.

Am I a Marxist? What do these terms mean nowadays? Marx said “I’m not a Marxist,” supposedly. I have been very, very strongly influenced by a certain strand of Marxist writing, more particularly the western  Marxist writing that came out in the sixties like Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson and others in England. I was powerfully shaped by encountering that literature, But there are a lot of other things that have shaped my writing. I think I’m a feminist writer also. So, yes and no. I’m a Marxist in that I’m powerfully influenced by Marx, but I’m influenced by a lot of other things also.

My view is liberalism today has become a lifestyle accoutrement. It is focused on issues which are not unimportant in any way, but the economic content of liberalism has washed out. Mayor Bloomberg, when he ran, said “I’m a liberal.” But what is his liberalism?

Shenk: Back to nineteenth-century liberalism . . .

Foner: It’s this lifestyle liberalism. In the 1930s, you could be a liberal and a total racist. Many Southern New Dealers voted for every economic measure of the New Deal, but they were total racists. But your views on race were not part of what made you a liberal. Today, you can be called a liberal and have nothing to do with trade-union issues, with minimum-wage issues, with inequality. But Lloyd Blankfein is in favor of gay marriage so people think he’s a liberal.

Shenk: This is a critique that you hear a lot—that, since the 1960s, the left has advanced far along the cultural front while receding on economic issues.

Foner: Liberalism has no vocabulary today to talk about the economic crisis this country is facing.

Shenk: This question about the mutability of liberalism is at the core of a lot of your work. The last chapter of The Story of American Freedom, I had forgotten, drops the reader off in Reagan-era America.

Foner: That book is the remnant of the book I was going to write and never did on the history of American radicalism. It’s an attempt to give people a usable past. It was written in the 1990s, before 9/11. The way freedom was usurped and used by Bush, Operation Iraqi Freedom and all this, and the whole issue of civil liberties nowadays and the Patriot Act. . . . I think the debate over freedom has taken some very interesting turns since that book. I don’t think the left should cede the idea of freedom to the right, which is what has happened in the last generation.

Shenk: We’ve been talking about the importance of African-American history in your scholarship. Looking at Ferguson, looking at Baltimore and Black Lives Matter: does this look like anything you’ve seen before?

Foner: The trouble with historians is we have a long memory, so nothing ever seems new: racism is not new, police brutality is not new. The danger of leaving it at that is that the whole configuration of society has changed. We are not back in the sixties. We are not back in the Reconstruction era. We are not back in the slavery era. One has to make an analysis of how racism functions today. The face of racism today is not Bull Connor with his dogs. It’s a Wells Fargo banker in a three-piece suit who is shuttling black home buyers into subprime mortgages. That’s what racism is today.

The whole question of police brutality is obviously central, but it is not the only thing that racism is. Most racism is not being done by people who are shooting other people. What was it Woodie Guthrie said? Some people will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen. It’s the guys with the fountain pens, if there are such things anymore, who are actually perpetuating racial inequality in this country. It’s the Lloyd Blankfeins in this world. That’s the analysis we need, as well as the analysis of the criminal justice system, which is coming out now after Ferguson and Baltimore.

Q & A

Audience: What do you think is the concept of freedom that has been ceded by the left to the right that you mention?

Foner: I think the word freedom has been ceded. The left doesn’t talk about freedom very much in my observation. It should, even in the political realm. In 2008, a former student of mine who was working for Hillary Clinton gave me a call and said, “Mrs. Clinton is looking for ideas for her speeches. Do you have any thoughts?” I said, “Yeah, my thought is she should talk about freedom. She should say that freedom is not just about getting the government off your back, owning a gun, and talk about more positive views of freedom: freedom as equality of opportunity and all sorts of things.” This goes back to the Cold War, when everything was in the name of freedom. I think people on the left became cynical and just unhappy with the concept. Not that we’re not in favor of freedom, but the word itself and the decision not to associate with it is a big mistake.

Obama doesn’t talk about freedom except when he’s going to war: “We’re fighting for freedom against ISIS. We’re bombing Somalia for freedom.” Freedom is the last refuge of the scoundrel in wartime. But in domestic issues the left should talk about how you can’t be free if you are living on a minimum wage, because freedom is so central to Americans’ conceptions of themselves and to the country’s political language. The right talks about freedom all the time, and we don’t. And I think we should.

Audience: Did any of the characters that you uncovered in your scholarship anticipate any of the ambiguities of a freedom based on wage labor?

Foner: In the abolitionist movement, in the Civil War, the small but vocal labor movement of that time debated this vehemently. The abolitionists, unintentionally, probably, helped to valorize waged labor by isolating slave labor as the epitome of illegitimate labor coercion. The abolitionist movement sees the ability to earn wages as an emblem of freedom. The labor movement talks about wage slavery. They talk about the oppression involved in the wage relationship, the inequality involved in the wage system, and how people have to get out of it. The question of whether getting paid wages makes you free or a slave was debated very vigorously at that time, and in some ways this is the crisis where the notion that to be free you actually have to own property is abandoned. The former slaves are not given land, as we know, and the Republican Party which had risen to power as the spokesman of free labor now concludes that you can be free without property—as a wage-earner you are still free, and that’s a shift in the discourse from before the Civil War.

The labor movement becomes the inheritor of the idea that to work for wages you are not truly free into the late nineteenth century. That flows into the early socialist movement of the twentieth century, and that lasts a long, long time.

Audience: I’m not a historian, but I keep feeling like I haven’t found much good, specific history on the African Free School.

Foner: The African Free School of New York City is a fascinating subject. This has been on my mind lately, because, among other things, part of my work is supervising a project on Columbia University’s historic connection to slavery. Columbia, as King’s College, was founded by slave traders. That’s where the money was in the 1850s. The merchants traded with the West Indies, with Africa. They all owned slaves, they traded slaves, they dealt with sugar, the product of slave labor. All the early presidents owned slaves. Faculty owned slaves. But then you have these Columbians, like John Jay and others, who formed the New York Manumission Society in 1785 to get the gradual abolition of slavery in New York. They also set up the African Free School.

This is before the colonization movement. They assumed these freed slaves would be part of American society. They’re not saying they have to go somewhere else. They will be here and they better be educated; you can’t be a citizen without being educated. So, they actually set up the African Free School, and a lot of the black leadership of nineteenth-century New York comes out of it. Eventually there were six or seven of them. In the 1830s they were absorbed into the New York City public school system, and I don’t actually know what happens after that.

These early, early Manumissionists are generally considered genteel. And they are; they’re very rich. For example, they won’t let blacks in as members of the Manumission Society. They think, “We must speak for these black people.” But they go out of their way to help them. They do accomplish a lot.

They’re often contrasted with the radical abolitionists of labor, in some ways correctly, but I think you have to give them credit in a slave-based city for actually agitating to get rid of slavery. John Jay owned slaves when he was President of the New York Manumission Society. There was no contradiction because Manumission was a voluntary act to free your slave, and they tried to encourage that. Eventually they got a law to gradually end slavery.

Audience: You talked about some of your recent work, maybe all of your work, as dealing with a “usable past.” I was curious if given recent events you thought there were particular historical episodes or themes that you’ve focused on recently that you wished were more part of the conversation, or you wish would be taken up and explored further.

Foner: I think the problem is that nobody knows any history in this country. A lot of what we are talking about today as a society has roots in Reconstruction. Whether it’s citizenship, or racism, or economic inequality and how to deal with it. I think we ought to think more about the Progressive Era and, particularly, the old Socialist Party. The Socialist Party was an umbrella for all these different groups. Emma Goldman was there for a while. Du Bois was there for a while. Labor unions were in there. There were radical literary figures connected to it; all sorts of different people—feminists, women’s suffragists. It was a kind of large house in which all these people could find some role under this rubric, ill-defined obviously, of socialism. It had to be ill-defined because there was no society in the world at that time that claimed to be socialist, but that gave it a lot of freedom. It was part of the political discourse. Today, we have a lot of movements, but there doesn’t seem to be any uniting impulse the way it existed there. There were problems, but on the other hand, the idea of a common ideal or aspiration, which people of all sorts of particular interests can adhere to is, to me, very appealing.