Gone With the Wind

Ira Berlin is the author of "Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America."

The current collapse of affirmative action and the resegregation of American society has led the American people back to first causes: the nearly three centuries of slavery that shaped American race relations. The result has been an outpouring of films ("Glory," "Amistad," "Shadrach" and "Beloved"), TV miniseries (PBS's four-part "Africa in America"), public monuments (at least half a dozen including the National Park Service's memorial to nearly 200,000 black Civil War soldiers), museum exhibits by the dozens and an avalanche of books. According to one count, some 60 books about slavery have been published during the last year. Not since the Civil War abolished slavery and the civil rights movement transformed the status of black people in the United States has there been such extraordinary engagement with slavery. Amid this renascence, the history of slavery is being rewritten.

Standing at the fore of this reinterpretation is the matter of the slaves' opposition to their captivity. Resistance cuts to the heart of the meaning of slavery, for it speaks both to the depth of the slaves' determination not to be reduced to a mere extension of the slave owners' will and to the lengths to which slaveholders--who celebrated their own freedom--went to deny that most valued prize to their slaves.

And if resistance stands at the heart of any appreciation of slavery, flight from slavery represents the most telling form of resistance, particularly in the United States, where the fugitive slave became emblematic of the slaves' desire for freedom. Few American slaves engaged in open insurrection, an activity that was all but suicidal in a society in which slaves were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. But almost all slaves partook in the routine insubordination--malingering, tool breaking, theft, for example--that could not overturn the system of slavery but provided slaves a measure of satisfaction and sometimes material comfort.

Flight stood somewhere between these two poles. Like open rebellion, it required careful planning and a conscious decision to break with the slave order, as well as a sober recognition that failure would entail severe consequences. Like day-to-day resistance, flight could also be a means to secure a respite from the world that was marked by humiliation, deprivation and exploitation and perhaps even a chance to escape bondage entirely.

Precisely because of its significance, flight has been subject to numerous historical inquiries. But no one has yet explored the fugitives' world and its meaning for the slave experience more deeply and with greater sophistication than John Hope Franklin, professor emeritus at Duke University and long the doyen of African American history, and Loren Schweninger, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the editor of a massive collection of petitions relating to slavery. Their "Runaway Slaves" greatly enhances our understanding of the system of slavery as it developed in the American South during the 19th century and the slaves' determination to resist the plantation regime.

Franklin and Schweninger confirm the fugitives' ubiquity. On the eve of the Civil War, some 50,000 slaves--according to a most conservative calculation--fled their owners annually. This astounding number, amounting to more than one-tenth of the slave population over the course of a decade, meant that few slaveholders did not experience the loss of some--doubtless more than one--of their slaves at one time or another, and that nearly every slave knew or knew of a fugitive, even if he or she did not try to escape.

Such numbers take on even greater weight when it is understood that young men comprised the vast majority of runaways, that proportionally few women took flight and that Africans fled in groups, while African Americans fled on their own. But Franklin and Schweninger do not dwell upon these statistics, although such an inquiry would tell much about the slave family and relations between men and women within the antebellum black community, subjects that have lately attracted renewed interest. Instead, they address the meaning of slave flight by inspecting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases gleaned from a careful reading of runaway advertisements and judicial and legislative records. Their close analysis reveals that flight was not a single phenomenon but many, because runaway slaves had different motives, strategies, tactics and goals. Indeed, as Franklin and Schweninger note, to classify fugitives "does injustice to the complexities of the human experience."

Some slaves fled to freedom. They prepared their escape with great care, accumulating knowledge of the terrain, money, food and clothing before they took to the road. They often changed their names, forged passes, counterfeited badges and prepared plausible stories for inquisitive whites. Occasionally, they stole a fast horse or, in the late antebellum years, purchased a steamboat or railroad ticket. Fugitives to freedom generally aimed for the borders of the slave states--Florida and Texas to the south, Indian territory to the west and the free states to the north. Southern cities, where slave hirelings and free peoples of color provided camouflage and assistance, offered another common destination. Swampy and mountainous areas acquired small maroon colonies. Although such "accidents of location" determined the fugitives' opportunity for success, no place was ever safe. Permanent freedom, in spite of the temporary refuge, was elusive.

Once at large, however, such fugitives did not surrender easily. Indeed, the longer they enjoyed freedom the more difficult slaveholders found it to return them to bondage. Attempts at recapture required slave owners to mobilize patrols, posses and professional slave catchers, often accompanied by ferocious dogs. Fugitives, for their part, prepared well and almost always carried knives or guns. When cornered, they fought desperately, so that such confrontations rarely ended without injury or death to one party or another, amid scenes of grisly savagery. Small wonder slaves only broke for freedom after the most careful consideration, and that slave owners hired professional catchers to do their dirty work.

But most fugitive slaves ran not to freedom but to gain a brief respite from their grinding routine or to redress a particular grievance such as a harsh punishment, onerous work assignment or separation from a loved one. The last was most important, especially as planters, following the opportunities presented by the new cotton economy, smashed slave families and dispersed whole communities in their efforts to squeeze great profit from their human property. Slaves, particularly slave men, traveled enormous distances to be reunited with their wives and children. In 1839, within months of one another, January left New Orleans for Vicksburg to be with his wife; Wiley abandoned Alabama for Tennessee for the same purposes, as did another Alabama slave for South Carolina. The ease with which Franklin and Schweninger rattle off these cases--and dozens more like them--makes it clear that the slaves' desire to maintain the integrity of their families was the primary cause of absenteeism or truancy. Whoever doubts the viability of the slave family or the commitment of slave men and women to an institution that had no standing in law need only consult "Runaway Slaves."

Running away, as Franklin and Schweninger demonstrate in one of the most original sections of their book, was an essential part of the slaves' ongoing negotiations with their owners over the terms of work and life. When the opportunity arose, truants gladly took their liberty, but most made it clear that freedom was not their immediate goal. They would not return until their demands--visitation rights with a spouse, reduced labor, overwork payment, hiring privileges, access to garden plots or free time on Sunday or Saturday--were granted. Moreover, while most truants bargained for a better deal for themselves or their family, many spoke for the larger slave community. Often plantation-bound slaves articulated the fugitives' demands, thus revealing how flight (although generally executed by an individual slave) was not a manifestation of individualism, but reflected the will of the entire plantation slave population. As if to confirm this judgment, plantation slaves supported fugitives with food, clothing and--most important--information. Although such runaways often resided within the shadow of the plantation--maddeningly close from the master's perspective--slaveholders retook them only with great difficulty and expense.

By their number, their variety and their persistence, fugitive slaves shaped the nature of slavery in the years prior to the Civil War. Southern law, social structure and social relations--not simply between slave and master or among masters, but between slaveholders and nonslaveholders--derived in considerable measure from the pervasive presence of runaways.

Fugitives drove slaveholders into contradictions that revealed the hollow core of the slaveholders' defense of chattel bondage: In the face of the fugitives' onslaught, planters sometimes denied the slaves freedom and blamed outside agitators--free blacks, Northern abolitionists, disenchanted white Southerners--for the slaves' refusal to stay put. Yet even as they denounced outsiders, slaveholders recognized the grievances that turned slaves into fugitives. Indeed, some masters cleverly transformed the slaves' grievances into incentives for good behavior by peremptorily offering to redress them in return for good behavior, diligent labor, appropriate deference and the renunciation of flight.

While fugitives deflated the slaveholders' fantasy of the happy slave, they rallied slaves and their allies in their opposition to bondage. Most fugitives did not secure freedom, and only the most persistent truants could wring lasting concessions from their owners. But the small minority who succeeded reminded those who could not or dared not flee of the possibilities that lay behind the slave masters' facade of unshakable domination.

"Runaway Slaves" thus not only tells the story of the minority who secured freedom and attacked slavery from the outside, but how even those who failed to gain their liberty subverted slavery from the inside. In unfolding the fugitives' tale, Franklin and Schweninger contribute mightily to our understanding of how the system of slavery stood for nearly three centuries and why it eventually fell.

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