Finding Freedom: New Perspectives on Movement, Mobility, and Self-Emancipation from Slavery in the Early Republic

AHA Session 247
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Salon C (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Edward Baptist, Cornell University
Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Norfolk State University

Session Abstract

The resistance of enslaved men and women to their bondage has inspired a rich historiography. Scholars have dispelled the myth of the “docile slave” while demonstrating how resistance constituted an attempt by the enslaved to reduce their enslavers’ power while appropriating some of the same for themselves. Besides rebellion, escape from slavery was the most extreme form of resistance, as it represented the attempt to extricate one’s self from an exploitative system as well as take full control of one’s own life.

However, studies of flight and fugitivity often suffer from overly-tight chronologies, are bound up in simplistic binaries, and are limited by perceptions of the process that downplay many social and identificatory factors. This panel provides compelling correctives and fresh perspectives to scholars of this topic by proposing shifts in accepted periodizations, highlighting the gendered nature of flight to freedom, and suggesting new conceptual frameworks for understanding self-emancipation.

Barbara Krauthamer first examines the ways enslaved women gained their freedom by moving, and being moved to, sites throughout the African Diaspora.  She traces women’s escapes from their American masters during the Revolution and follows their trajectories to Halifax, London, and Jamaica. Krauthamer demonstrates that women made calculated decisions about when, where, and with whom they would escape. Her subjects did not always escape with male leaders nor did they blindly follow them.  This paper highlights the gendered nature of freedom through cases where women struggled to regain possession of their bodies, sexuality, and children as the hallmarks of their new status as free people.

Looking at roughly the same era, Graham Hodges confronts several theoretical problems affecting the current study of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) from the onset of the American Revolution to the passage of the first national Fugitive Slave law in 1793. Hodges shows that the extent of UGRR-type activities long predated the antebellum period. He also challenges the historiography that characterizes the UGRR as a largely-pacifist phenomenon by placing it within the context of the Revolutionary War, which in turn expands the numbers gaining freedom by thousands of people. By focusing on the sizable number of self-emancipators in the revolutionary and early national Mid-Atlantic, this paper also argues for the forcible quality of black escape shaping decisions leading to the Fugitive Act of 1793.

In the final paper, Brent Morris argues that the study of self-emancipation from slavery in North America requires a reassessment from a marronage perspective. Using the example of the maroon communities who thrived in the Great Dismal Swamp (and thus in the midst of the Tidewater slave society) as a case study and drawing on new archival discoveries and recent archaeological fieldwork, his paper complicates our understanding of fugitivity and freedom. Morris suggests that scholars must expand their focus from the act of escape itself—of focusing on a limited and fleeting aspect of each self-emancipators life—to a perspective of flight from slavery as a complex and dynamic process that did not necessarily seek “freedom” elsewhere in a northern state or Canada. 

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