"The thought that anyone could take our children from us--and that we might be powerless to stop them--still tears at me in a primal, elemental way. Families belong together." --Richard Bell
We've all heard of the Underground Railroad.
How many of us know of the Reverse Underground Railroad?
Richard Bell, in painstaking detail, with photos and documents, tells us how traffickers and slave traders stole away thousands of legally free African Americans - ripped from their families - never to be seen again - to feed the demand for slaves in the decades before the Civil War. Snatching free black people, children in particular, "was more widespread than is generally known, especially after 1808, when the importation of foreign-born slaves was banned."
We know so little about the conductors and agents who trafficked these people because "the identities of all but a handful still remain a secret." Unlike Nazis who were caught and convicted after World War II, most of these villains walked free and remain unscathed in news reports and history books.
Philadelphia was "bitterly divided by racism," with white people "ever more enamored of schemes to deport to Liberia or Haiti black neighbors they regarded as idle and worthless." Bell delivers statistics and stories, documented and researched. As he puts it, "Throughout the early 1820s, white thugs beat, robbed, or otherwise molested many black residents, knowing full well that city authorities were unlikely to prosecute them."
Worse, anti-kidnapping work was very dangerous.
Is there no end to the injustices, horrors, shocks, and sad stories? I had to put this book down for a while just to keep my sanity. Goodreads reviewer Kathy says it so well, I will quote her:
This is a meticulously researched, well-written and important read. At the same time, it is very dark, and emotionally, a very difficult read, and I found myself needing to take frequent breaks from it.
There is no possible way, despite the author's efforts, to truly understand the horrors of that time. As with WWII, it is challenging to wrap my mind around the madness, inhumanity and pure evil occurring and the complicity of those who stood by afraid to become involved to stop it.
Is there a bright light to be found? In places, yes. Black churches served as sanctuaries for fugitives from slavery and worked "to transform a group of refugee migrants fresh from slavery into a cohesive and self-supporting community of respectable citizens. Education was essential to these efforts," and "many African American parents believed that teaching their children to read and write was the surest path to prosperity, dignity, and respectability."
Only a few pages after that, we get stories of chimney sweeps, children working in dangerous conditions, and those who survived would have a lifetime of breathing problems and higher rates of cancer.
Slave traders stole children from free families and sold them into slavery, and parents in the free north would warn their children not to wander alone and to beware of strangers offering jobs that sounded too good to be true. It is unthinkable that so many free people, not just children, were tricked into becoming slaves. "Twelve Years a Slave" was no isolated incident.
"Husbands and wives reminded each other to carry their freedom papers at all times and to keep them up to date,"
Bell writes. Parents "pestered their sons and daughters to stay in large groups, to read body language, to steer clear of certain streets, and to be wary of promises too good to be true." Neighborhood watch groups formed, but in most cases, "the efforts of vigilante neighbors to tackle traffickers and intercede in kidnappings fell tragically short." Operatives worked in the shadows, quickly and quietly.
Most of the book focuses on the story of five boys who managed to escape. Cornelius Sinclair had a father who wouldn't give up. "Boy Lost," he posted in newspapers, paying for the poignant ads. I will say no more in hopes that anyone reading this review will just go read the book instead.
Cornelius Sinclair (c. 1813 to unknown) was an African American child kidnapped in Philadelphia in August 1825 by Patty Cannon's gang. He was one of a number of children kidnapped that summer and later transported south, to be sold into slavery. Sinclair was sold in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in October 1825 and subsequently freed in March 1827 through the efforts of several Methodist ministers, Robert L. Kennon and Joshua Boucher, who filed a lawsuit on his behalf. John Gayle (Alabama) of the Alabama Supreme Court presided over the trial, where a jury of slave-owners in Tuscaloosa found in favor of Sinclair's freedom. When he returned to Philadelphia he testified as part of the successful prosecution of one of his kidnappers. The African American newspaper the African Observer provided coverage of the efforts to free Sinclair and prosecute the kidnappers. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornelius_Sinclair
Learn more here:
Stolen and Enslaved with Richard Bell, (HoH Podcast – Ep, 97)
Published October 19, 2019 by Steven Baumann
These horror stories feel so recent. They're not fiction. Thank you Richard Bell for bringing them to light, and thank you Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for providing me with an ARC of this book. I'm sorry it has taken me so long to bring myself to write about it.
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