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The Blackburn saga is framed within the history of Africans in America and their ongoing resistance to the inferior and exploited status colonialism thrust upon them. This rejection of their enslavement by the turn of the nineteenth century had culminated in the establishment of well-worn paths leading out of the slave states. These clandestine routes and the courageous individuals who assisted those who traveled came to be known as the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad occupies a very special place in the North American saga. Tales of hidden tunnels and false-bottomed wagons, perilous escapes by night and brazen daylight rescues all paint an enthralling picture. Yet the stories we learn are filtered through much embroidered late-nineteenth-century accounts by white authors. In the place of the daring freedom-seekers who made the perilous journey north, the heroes have become whites who helped them on their way. Yet surviving slave narratives show that most people escaped alone and unaided. Years after Kentucky-born author, poet, and playwright William Wells Brown fled slavery in 1834, he wrote, “When I escaped there was no Underground Railroad. The North Star was, in many instances, the only friend that the weary and footsore fugitive found on his pilgrimage to his new home among strangers.” Mattie J. Jackson told the same story: “My parents had never learned the rescuing scheme of the underground railroad which had borne so many thousands to the standard of freedom and victories. They knew no other resource than to depend upon their own chance in running away and secreting themselves.” Lost in the mythology, too, are the free blacks of the Northern states who risked far more than their white counterparts when they hid a desperate fugitive in a barn, or passed a meal over the fence to a starving family. This book is, in part, an attempt to set the Underground Railroad’s record straight. The Blackburns traveled the routes of the Underground Railroad as it was, rather than as myth and legend would have it be.

No one will ever know how many African Americans fled slavery in the tumultuous years before the Civil War. Black people in the United States had been escaping those who claimed their service almost since the first Dutch slave ship landed her human cargo at Jamestown in 1619. Some runaways formed maroon communities beyond the outposts of white settlement. Others went to Spanish Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and a tiny proportion reached Britain, Europe, and Africa. Estimates of those who came to Canada range between 20,000 and 100,000. Reliable contemporary observers place the number at somewhere between 30,000 and 35,000 over the entire antebellum period.

African Americans waged a daily, unrelenting battle against their enslaved condition. Well aware that their value to their owners lay in their unpaid labor, they engaged in acts of resistance calculated to undermine the slaveholder’s profit margin: breaking tools, injuring livestock, or “malingering,” simply pretending to be ill. Charismatic leaders arose to foment revolts always limited in scale and quickly contained, but these struck terror into the hearts of whites across the South. Such collective resistance was relatively rare, for the entire system of the slaveocracy militated against bondspeople being able to organize or arm themselves. Instead, when the beatings, hunger, and the destruction of family occasioned by sale and sexual interference became too much to bear, African Americans made the single most overtly antislavery statement possible, short of suicide or murder: they ran away. In so doing, they deprived their owners not only of their productivity and of their own market value but also that of their children and all ensuing generations. Even more potently, the thousands of slaves who “stole themselves” exploded the comforting racist myth that buttressed American slavery: that blacks were unfit for freedom, too lazy and unintelligent to care for themselves without white supervision, and that they preferred the kindly oversight of benevolent masters—that they were, indeed, “happy in their chains.”

In a Christian nation founded upon republican principles, the commodification of black labor required moral justification. White America found ways of separating itself from blacks as fellow human beings. No lesser an authority than Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I advance it therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” A beneficiary himself of the plantation system, he deemed slavery a “necessary evil.” In the years immediately following the American Revolution, biblical and scientific justifications were sought to “prove” blacks irredeemably less capable than whites, uneducable, inherently indolent, and immoral, the eternal “other.” Even in Northern states where slavery gave way to wage labor soon after the Revolution, black skin came to be considered emblematic of bondage. People of color were required to carry with them papers attesting to their free status, lest they be taken up as fugitive slaves under harsh federal laws that enabled slaveholders to seek out their absconding property anywhere in the United States. Slavery in America was inextricably intertwined with the concept of race.

By the time a young enslaved Kentuckian named Thornton Blackburn came of age in 1830, self-serving pro-slavery ideology had transformed Jefferson’s “necessary evil” into a system slaveholders professedly believed to be a “positive good.” Apologists maintained that white “wage slaves” in Britain and the northern United States were worse off than blacks living in Southern slavery. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who with New England’s Daniel Webster and Kentucky’s own Henry Clay formed the “Great Triumvirate” of antebellum American politics, summed this up in a speech he made before the U.S. Senate on February 6, 1837: “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.” Yet nowhere was such nonsense better contradicted than in the lengths enslaved African Americans were willing to go to free themselves. The exodus of black men, women, and children from the slave states was a vast, collective rejection of their circumstances and of the racially biased rationalizations that supported slavery.

Whippings, mutilation, rape, and varied forms of physical and mental torture were ways in which the slaveholding class maintained its hegemony over its unwilling workers. But slave narratives show that a majority of runaways fled for a more specific reason: they were about to be parted from those they loved. Colonial-era planters had maintained the fiction that they cared for their “black families” as they did their white. When selling off slaves, they paid lip service to keeping couples or at least mothers and children together. The death knell to such paternalism sounded when the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793 gave birth to the cotton-growing boom of the early nineteenth century. As cotton-growing expanded in the Deep South, the older farming districts of the more northerly slave states found it very profitable to ship their “surplus” slaves south for sale. These so-called Border States became a slave-producing resource for the larger, more prosperous plantation economy of the Lower South. Wives and mothers, fathers, and even tiny babies were taken from their loved ones and sold far away.

At the same time, the rift between North and South was widening into an irreparable chasm. Increasing Northern and foreign criticism of the American slave system and resistance to the expansion of slavery into the newly added frontier districts resulted in a hardening of pro-slavery positions. A series of slave revolts terrified slaveholding whites and intensified efforts to control supposedly contented local black populations. In addition to the escalating threat of being sold away from their families, enslaved African Americans in the first decades of the nineteenth century suffered from enhanced surveillance, ever more limited mobility, and a host of other indignities and restrictions. Slave flight to the Northern states and to destinations outside the borders of the United States turned from a trickle to a flood as conditions deteriorated in the South. Proslavery advocates blamed the progressively more vocal abolitionist movement for slave discontent and minimized the numbers of runaways officially reported, but the fact that mounting numbers of black Americans were taking terrible personal risks to flee bondage was difficult to counter.

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