THE BLOG
01/20/2015 03:06 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Foner's Underground Railroad on Time for African American History Month

Do historians choose the subjects they write about or do the subjects choose them? Eric Foner, 72, has largely chosen the narratives that he's told ever since 1970 when Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, his first book, was published. But fate, chance and the muse of history herself have also chosen topics for him. The De Witt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia, and the author of more than two dozen books, including massive texts (The Story of American Freedom) and lyrical biographies (Tom Paine and Revolutionary America), he has gone out of his way to search for and unearth lost, hidden and ignored chapters in the American past. He has also had history handed to him, almost on a silver platter.

That's the case with his latest book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad in which he delves deeply into the clandestine network that operated in the United States (and especially in New York City) before the Civil War and that helped to free thousands of African Americans from slavery. As Foner explains in the acknowledgments to this book, Madeline Lewis, a history student at Columbia, alerted him to the existence of Sydney Howard Gay Papers that contained a treasure trove of material about the underground railroad that no scholar had ever studied or written about.

A bright light went on in Foner's head, and, as he explains, "I filed this away for future reference." That's what historians do. Soon after he finished The Fiery Trial (2010), his Pulitzer Prize winning book about Abraham Lincoln, he turned to Gay's archives and knew instantly that he'd found the material he needed to write a book that would rewrite the history of the underground railroad by showing the pivotal role played by African Americans themselves, and not by white abolitionists, their allies in the struggle.

Gateway to Freedom is based on Sydney Howard Gay's meticulous records, on abolitionist and anti-slavery newspapers that helped African Americans find freedom in the North and on the narratives of famous escaped slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Harriet Jacobs. It's also based on the stories of less well known individuals like James Hamlet, a fugitive slave from Maryland who was arrested in New York eight days after the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 became the law of the land and accelerated the coming of the Civil War. There's suspense and drama on nearly every page.

For those who like their history books footnoted this one won't disappoint. Foner provides 39 pages of closely packed footnotes, plus a list of archives and newspapers he used to track the tracks of the largely hidden underground railroad. Still, Gateway to Freedom is more than the product of diligent scholarship, research and the listing of sources. Indeed, it's the art of historical narrative at its very best with individual heroes caught up in the larger sweep of social movements.

Over the past half century, Foner has carved out a significant place for himself in the field of history by writing history from the bottom up, by tracing over-arching themes, such as freedom, and by recognizing that all history is contemporary history. No American historian looks more acutely at the past through the lens of the present than Foner. And no one understands more profoundly than he that history doesn't always tell a tale of progress, but rather one of advances and set backs, paradoxes and ironies. The conditions of life in New York City -- where prosperous merchants were affiliated with Southern plantation owners -- were often miserable for escaped slaves. Moreover, slaves escaped from plantations, Foner explains, not only because they felt oppressed and dehumanized, or worried that they'd be sold down the river, but simply because they were sick and tired of being slaves. Most slaves left the south in groups, not as individuals, though the most famous image of an escaped slave, from 1837, which is reproduced in this volume, shows a lone African American male with a sack containing all his worldly belongings on his back. The book's maps show the key underground railroad sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a center of abolitionist activity, and the links in the clandestine movement that led to Boston, Syracuse and Toronto, where many African Americans settled under the assumption that Canada provided a safer sanctuary than the U.S.

Foner focuses on the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, when political passions reached the boiling point and when anti-slavery groups fought with one another over funds and bragging rights. The factionalism and the rivalries are all here, along with the build-up to the Fugitive Slave Act and the fall-out from it.

If the subtext for Foner's book about Lincoln was that popular movements have to push presidents to act, the subtext for his new book about the underground railroad suggests that popular movements can't wait for president, that they have to act on their own in principled ways. As contemporary as the latest headlines about human trafficking and rendition, Gateway to Freedom turns the spotlight of history on the African Americans who built the underground railroad with their own heads and heads and who celebrate their own past every February, African American history month.