cover image Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

Eric Foner. Norton, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-24407-6

The Underground Railroad is at once one of the best known and least understood aspects in the history of American slavery, but Pulitzer Prize–winner Foner (The Fiery Trial) makes expert use of an unusual primary source to illuminate the workings of this secret system. He focuses on the antebellum accounts of Sydney Howard Gay, a Manhattan newspaper editor, abolitionist sympathizer, and Underground Railroad participant, whose “record of fugitives” sheds light on the experiences of more than 200 enslaved men and women who passed through New York City. The accounts also offer fascinating glimpses of the lives of individual fugitive slaves, including Simon Hill, who walked from southern Virginia to Philadelphia, and Winnie Patsy, who with her young daughter spent five months hiding in a dark, unventilated crawl space outside Norfolk, Va. Foner shows how Gay’s network functioned on a practical level, helping fugitives to move from one safe space to another along the East Coast—often to Canada—and he emphasizes the crucial role played by African-Americans themselves, from dockworkers to clergymen, in helping fugitives to freedom. The Underground Railroad is much mythologized but not widely understood; Foner’s gripping account of slaves’ struggles to free themselves reveals the immense risks they, and their sympathizers, took to escape bondage. Agent: Sandra Dijkstra, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. (Jan.)