When Captives Cast Off Chains

Book review of The Long Walk to Freedom, edited by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise

Wall Street Journal
August 22, 2012

by Melanie Kirkpatrick

On March 29, 1849, in Richmond, Va., the slave Henry Brown climbed inside a cramped, custom-made box into which he had drilled three air holes. The box was nailed shut, stamped “Express Mail” and addressed to an anti-slavery society in Philadelphia. Twenty-seven hours and 350 miles later, Brown emerged at his destination. “I rose a free man,” he later wrote. It was “my resurrection from the grave of slavery.”

Thus concluded one of the more ingenious escape stories in the annals of the African-American experience. Brown went on to become a popular speaker on the abolitionist circuit, often carrying with him the box that had delivered him from bondage. He published a chronicle of his life in 1851.

The story of Henry “Box” Brown, as he came to be known, is just one of the remarkable first-person accounts of escapes from slavery collected in “The Long Walk to Freedom.” The 12 personal testimonies included here are as fresh, as powerful and as moving as they were when they were originally published between 1815 and 1901. Each story is riveting—a powerful testament to the enduring lure of freedom and the extraordinary courage and drive of those who seek it. Readers will learn more about slavery in the American South from these autobiographical accounts than they could from any textbook.

The editors are Devon W. Carbado, a professor of law and African-American studies at UCLA, and Donald Weise, the editor in chief of Magnus Books. Their focus is on fugitive slaves—why they ran, how they did it, what obstacles they encountered on their journey. Their aim is to dispel the myth of the slave as passive and afraid to cast off his chains.

Messrs. Carbado and Weise note that the majority of runaway slaves didn’t reach freedom. They were apprehended “long before they ever reached free soil,” tracked down by bloodhounds or arrested by brokers. In the 1850s, at the height of the Underground Railroad, only about 1,000 slaves made it to safety each year in a Northern state or Canada. Many other slaves fled to Southern cities, where they hoped to blend into the free-black populations.

The difficulties of fugitive slaves were compounded, the editors note, by the fact that slaves were usually illiterate and “unable to read signs or maps.” They were prohibited from using public transportation unless they were traveling with their masters. They also had to answer to suspicious whites, who were constantly on the lookout for runaways. Any white man could stop a black person and demand to see his pass from his master or mistress or his emancipation papers. If the traveler could not produce the requisite documents, he could be arrested, jailed, flogged and held until his owner reclaimed him. If the owner did not show up, the unfortunate prisoner could be sold to a slave broker.

Several of the slave narratives featured here are well known, such as Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and that of Harriet Jacobs, who hid in the crawl space under her grandmother’s roof for seven years to escape the sexual abuse of her master. More than half of the narratives, however, have not been published in more than a century.

One of the most daring tales is told by William Craft, who recounts how he and his wife, Ellen, made their way from their home in Georgia to safety in Pennsylvania, a distance of 1,000 miles across the hostile territory of the Deep South. As a small child, Ellen had endured the pain of being sold away from her mother, and the couple did not want their future children to be born into slavery. They resolved to flee and devised an audacious plan.

Ellen, who was biracial and could pass for white, cut her hair and dressed as a young gentleman in clothes that her husband purchased illegally. In Georgia, William explains, “it is unlawful for a white man to trade . . . with slaves without the master’s consent.”

William pretended to be Ellen’s slave companion, serving his young “master,” who was supposedly an invalid. The couple traveled on public trains and vessels and stayed in hotels patronized by whites. To disguise the fact that she was illiterate, Ellen bound her right hand in a bandage and put it in a sling, giving her a ready-made excuse for not signing her name when required. She wound another bandage around her lower face, hiding the fact that she had no beard. After many close calls—including a humorous incident in which two young white ladies took a fancy to the young invalid—the Crafts finally reached Philadelphia.

If the collection has a fault, it is that it leaves readers wanting to know more about the men and women who tell their stories here. The editors introduce each narrative, but the material is sketchy and sometimes ignores obvious questions, such as how the writer eventually made his way to freedom.

The once-enslaved men and women at the center of the narratives emerge as the central players in their own lives. The narratives do indeed show, as the editors put it, that slaves were not “resigned to their roles as human chattel.” They show as well how a slave’s decision to flee could be influenced by a range of factors, including his Christian beliefs, his family situation or his desperation to escape punishment.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Nearly 150 years later, the testimonies of the former slaves found in “The Long Walk to Freedom” still hold power. In the famous words of Frederick Douglass, describing his decision to flee bondage: “I had as well be killed running as die standing.”

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