Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Freedom in North America, 1800–60

AHA Session 37
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Grand Hall C (Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Lower Level 2)
Sydney Nathans, Duke University

Session Abstract

In the Age of Revolutions, the spread of Enlightenment ideals had important consequences for the nature of slavery and freedom in the New World. First, it led to the formal abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself in various states and countries/colonies. Second, it stimulated a wave of individual manumissions within slaveholding territories, thereby creating or greatly bolstering the existence of free black communities, especially in urban areas. And third, it exposed enslaved people to discourses of freedom and human rights that strengthened their aspirations to challenge their enslavement. All of these developments gave rise to waves of asylum-based migration across the Americas, as droves of fugitive slaves crossed into geographic spaces and places that for them constituted sites of legal freedom from slavery (where slavery was abolished according to “free soil” principles) or illegal freedom from slavery (regions within slaveholding territories, such as urban areas, where runaways illegally attempted to blend in with free black populations).

In North America the geography of slavery and freedom that emerged in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries was even more complicated, as it included sites of legal, semi-legal, and illegal freedom for fugitive slaves. The northern US, Canada, and Mexico all abolished slavery between 1777 and 1834, either gradually or immediately. Yet only in Mexico and Canada did spaces of legal freedom from slavery for enslaved asylum seekers emerge on paper, although in practice the meanings of this freedom were contested in a multitude of ways. In the northern US, where state abolition laws were theoretically curtailed by federal fugitive slave laws, sites of freedom for fugitive slaves remained semi-legal (with state and federal laws conflicting), and refugees’ formal claims to freedom were precarious and often contested in the courts. Meanwhile, sites of illegal freedom for fugitive slaves emerged within the slaveholding South itself after a wave of individual manumissions in the revolutionary and early federal periods bolstered free black populations in countless towns and cities across the region, attracting innumerable runaways who attempted to escape their masters by getting lost in the crowd and passing for free.

How did the emergence of spaces of formal, semi-formal, and informal freedom impact slave flight in North America? Why did fugitive slaves choose to flee to various destinations, and how did they attempt to rebuild their lives in freedom upon arrival? The papers in this panel will examine and contrast various groups of fugitive slaves in North America in the US antebellum period (roughly between 1800-1860). It will reroute and reconceptualize the geography of slavery and freedom in North America, focusing on fugitive slaves who sought freedom outside of the South as well as those who sought freedom within the South.

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