Citizens of Nowhere: U.S. Fugitive Slaves in Mexico, 1833–62

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 9:10 AM
Columbia 2 (Marriott)
Sarah E. Cornell , University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM
The historiography of U.S. fugitive slaves overwhelmingly focuses on their flight to the U.S. North and Canada, but Mexico was an important refuge not only for fugitives located in Texas, but also those residing in Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas territory. The few historians who investigate slave flight to Mexico rarely examine the lives of former slaves after they cross the border, but do portray Mexico as a land of opportunity free of racism drawing upon sources produced by white U.S. contemporaries and WPA interviews with former slaves and their descendants.

Using Mexican sources, this paper interrogates the contours of the freedoms fugitive slaves found in Mexico, revealing the fragile nature of their freedom there, despite the fact that they had found sanctuary in a sovereign nation. Increasing U.S. incursions into Mexico territory rendered the position of fugitive slaves insecure, but fugitive slaves' inability to acquire the proof of their national origin that was required to legally reside in Mexico also made them vulnerable to arrest, imprisonment, and extortion. Mexico refused to extradite fugitive slaves, but did not create a comprehensive national policy to address former slaves' liminal legal status.  The mixed reception of former slaves was shaped by poverty of the immigrants and racism towards persons of African descent. Because former bondspeople did not have the legal rights of Mexican citizens or other foreign nationals in Mexico, former slaves were forced to carve out a constrained and contingent freedom. Fugitive slaves used a wide variety of strategies to gain social citizenship, including marriage, conversion to Catholicism, and military service. Integration into local communities was of utmost importance to fugitives, and stood between circumscribed freedom and imprisonment.

<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation