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It was to preserve their own marriage that Thornton Blackburn and his bride would make their own break for freedom in the summer of 1831; the year was significant, for 1831 was the watershed for abolitionism in the northern United States. Originally, the antislavery movement, a factor in both the South and the North in the Revolutionary era, had proposed that slaveholders support the gradual emancipation of African American slaves. Some hoped slavery as an institution would die a natural death. Those who believed black people should “return” to the African continent, incidentally ridding the United States of quantities of free blacks, sponsored an ambitious and ultimately ruinously expensive colonization scheme that resulted in the founding of Liberia. But by the 1830s, with increasing pressure to extend cotton-growing and the slavery that made it so profitable into the American West, it had become evident to antislavery advocates, both black and white, that the practice was not going to end anytime soon. More radical elements began to campaign for the immediate liberation of the nation’s more than two million enslaved African Americans.

The first black antislavery convention had been held in Philadelphia in September 1830, as African Americans of the urban North worked to create mechanisms to both combat Southern slavery and ameliorate the conditions of their own lives, for even as free people they were subjected to unrelenting racial discrimination. Then, in concert with black abolitionist leaders, a white printer from Newburyport, Massachusetts, named William Lloyd Garrison published the first issue of the antislavery paper The Liberator on January 1, 1831. A year later Garrison helped to found the New England Anti-Slavery Society, a precursor to the American Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1833. As the antebellum years progressed, there was a measurable increase in both popular and political opposition to maintaining a system of human bondage in a nation founded on ideals of democracy and freedom. Nearly three decades later this elemental conflict would culminate in the bloody Civil War. But before that time, a great many brave individuals, out of conviction or simple humanity, laid their livelihoods and even their lives on the line to succor black refugees who chose to take the freedom road.

For fugitives like Lucie Blackburn and her husband, the odds against making a successful escape were staggering. Federal law facilitated the efforts of owners and the brutal slave catchers they employed to retrieve runaways throughout the United States and its territories. Local and state ordinances nearly everywhere prohibited black people from defending themselves against their white captors in courts of law. That so many of the enslaved were able to liberate themselves is astonishing. That uncounted numbers were captured and carried back to places where white men ruled with the lash is unutterably tragic.

Once I began unearthing the history of the Blackburns, it became apparent why most literature about slavery and the Underground Railroad deals with the general rather than the particular. Rescuing slaves was illegal under the federal Fugitive Slave Law and the much more punitive legislation passed in 1850, so records of Underground Railroad routes and stations are scarce. Only since the middle decades of the twentieth century have most archives and libraries, historical societies and museums begun to preserve evidence pertaining to the heritage of peoples of the African Diaspora on this continent. So much has been discarded, still more destroyed, carelessly and sometimes intentionally. Only a handful of authenticated fugitive slave stories survive, mainly in autobiographies and in narratives recorded by abolitionists.

What genealogists call the “wall of slavery” makes fugitive slave biography extremely difficult to research. Theirs was a heritage of oppression, with the vast majority of its documentation produced by slaveholders rather than slaves, most of the latter of whom were illiterate. The problem lies with names. Although soon after Africans landed in America, they adopted European-style surnames, these were rarely recognized within the slaveholding culture that governed their lives. Most whites, if they acknowledged a surname for their servants at all, assumed that the slaves took the name of their owner. This was indeed often the case in the first generation out of Africa, but slaves were sold, inherited by married daughters, given away, or even raffled off as lottery prizes, and so, within a generation or two, a great many bore names that had no relation at all to the people who now claimed their service. The fact that white culture did not use slave surnames freed black Americans to choose ones they desired, pass them down through the female line as well as the male, and take names that pleased them rather than ones that carried any connection whatsoever to a hated master or difficult mistress. Names of towns and cities were popular, as were the names of people who had been kind to them, important events or battles, and even European heroes or figures from the Revolutionary War era.

To make people even more difficult to trace through history, records kept by white slave owners and overseers only very rarely mentioned slave surnames at all. It was part of the culture of domination they maintained to address even venerable black bondspeople by only their first names, as one might with children or pets. So hundreds of thousands of African Americans were born, lived, and died with no historical notice taken of their existence except, perhaps, their first names and relative ages listed in a white family’s Bible or in plantation account books as “Little Buck, aged 3” or “Suky, cook, 34.” Following the history of specific enslaved African Americans is therefore an exercise in the genealogy and migratory patterns of white slaveholding families. Personal papers might reveal a chance comment about this or that bondsperson. Accounts for medical care may offer insight into a slave’s age or condition. Family relationships can sometimes be inferred from sale documents, wills, or inventories. Hiring agreements help trace the movements of this or that slave over time.

The vast population movements after the American Revolution further complicate the process of fugitive slave research. As slaveholders pushed out into the American interior in the successive waves known as the Westward Movement, they carried with them their slaves. Documents directly relevant to the Blackburns’ slave experience have been located in repositories in Washington, D.C., New York, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, Louisiana, California, and Ontario, Canada.

Excerpted from I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad by Karolyn Smardz Frost. Copyright © 2007 by Karolyn Smardz Frost. Published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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