Flee North by Scott Shane is a riveting account of the extraordinary abolitionist, liberator, and writer Thomas Smallwood, who bought his own freedom, led hundreds out of slavery, and named the Underground Railroad. Read or listen to an excerpt about the incredible American hero all but lost to history below.
Smallwood and Torrey had begun to describe their spiriting away of people from bondage with a new term, one Smallwood was the first to use in print: “under ground rail-road.” Smallwood used it initially to ridicule the slaveholders’ wide-eyed bafflement that the people they enslaved, whom they often derided as incapable of planning anything or even looking after themselves, somehow managed to disappear overnight without a trace. He fashioned this mythical transport system into a trope of Black empowerment and a lash for the enslavers and their hired hands, the slave-catching police. The name caught on.
The goal of the two swashbuckling abolitionists was not just to help people by the score escape from slavery and start a new life in the north. They hoped their tactics might add up to a strategy: that by stealing the human assets of the enslavers, they might destroy the slaveholders’ faith in the profitability of treating people as property. Disillusioned by their losses, Smallwood and Torrey imagined, enslavers would conclude that actually paying people for their labor might be a safer and cheaper bet. And then, they imagined, the malevolent institution on which the American economy had been built just might begin to crumble.
A daring activist and searing writer, self-taught and selflessly motivated, Thomas Smallwood was a striking figure in the American antislavery movement who has largely been lost to history, either mentioned in passing as a Black sidekick to Torrey or overlooked altogether. He deserves much more.
Having acquired his own freedom, Smallwood risked it again and again for the sake of others still in bondage. With Torrey, he forged an escape network that became a model for radical action up to the Civil War, operating a decade before the far-better-known Harriet Tubman. A man of wonderful wit, Smallwood not only gave the underground railroad its name (picking up the phrase from a casual remark by a frustrated slave-catching constable). He also left a short, fascinating memoir. And in his pseudonymous newspaper dispatches, he crafted unique, real-time accounts of escapes from slavery that add up to a satirical masterpiece, Dickensian in style and rich in detail. In his blunt, shrewd, often sardonic analysis of American racism as the enduring plague that underlay slavery, he was far ahead of his time.
But the man who called himself, with a wink, the “general agent of all the branches of the National Underground Railroad, Steam Packet, Canal and Foot-it Company” would fade into oblivion. His bold white partner, Torrey, would get a much-deserved monument and two biographies. Smallwood, whose achievements were by many measures greater, would receive no such attention. Until recently, his remarkable newspaper columns lay moldering and forgotten in a Boston Public Library warehouse.
The unusual partnership of the older Black man and the younger white man commands attention, too. They forged an enterprise that was breathtakingly audacious. They worked courageously together to liberate people in Washington, Baltimore, and beyond, helping them to flee north. When the two men could they tried to do it wholesale—not in ones or twos, but whole families and carriage loads at a time. They did not passively wait until enslaved people decided on their own to run—they actively encouraged them to flee. In shifting their efforts from theoretical debates about the fate of the enslaved to practical action, and in their merciless ridicule of the enslavers whose human property was vanishing, they hoped to erode the very institution of slavery. For a time, their operation was a blazing success.
Yet despite the pose of ostentatious celebration and carefree glee that Smallwood cultivated in his newspaper columns, he and Torrey knew they were engaged in a deadly serious enterprise, one that was making dangerous enemies. Organizing escapes was hazardous enough for a white man like Torrey, as events would prove. But even nominally free African Americans in the 1840s in the mid-Atlantic lived in a separate reality, under the tyranny of white leaders who reserved full freedom for their own kind. Smallwood, who had freed himself but still walked the legal tightrope reserved for free Black Americans, knew he was working against a relentless clock. Soon enough, the blows Smallwood and Torrey struck for liberty would rebound against both men, with dire consequences.
Their adversaries included not only the slaveholders Smallwood portrayed as hapless and degraded and the police officers paid to do the enslavers’ bidding but also, perhaps most perilously, the slave traders who operated from Washington’s mall and Baltimore’s harbor. These human traffickers were directly competing with them for Black bodies—every person who successfully fled north was one more who could not be sold south. Even as Smallwood and Torrey were discreetly collecting enslaved people to lead to freedom, Hope H. Slatter, the region’s leading slave trader and this book’s third major character, had agents combing the towns and countryside, buying and carting away in shackles those the slaveholders deemed excess labor or a source of easy cash.
On October 21, 1842, the day before Smallwood sent his latest rollicking satire to Albany’s Tocsin of Liberty, Slatter, whose “Cash for Negroes!” advertisements ran daily in The Baltimore Sun and other newspapers, signed the paperwork for his latest shipment south: seventy-seven men, women, and children, ages one to forty, who had been locked in Slatter’s private slave jail near Baltimore’s waterfront until he had accumulated a cost-efficient shipload. They were forced aboard the ship Burlington and departed on a cold, wet, fetid journey to New Orleans, to be sold to the highest bidder and dispatched to the cotton and sugar plantations of the Deep South, where the lives of the enslaved were often cut short by a labor regime of appalling brutality. Many had been torn from their wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, children; most were leaving behind, almost certainly forever, everyone and everything they had ever known.
Slatter saw the likes of Smallwood and Torrey as lethal enemies to his business, and they returned the favor. He was regularly featured in the pages of the Albany paper as the iconic human trafficker, a diabolical character wringing profits from human tragedy. But business was steady, and Slatter had rationalizations at the ready. His story would end far more happily than those of his adversaries.
Together, the stories of Smallwood and Torrey, on the one hand, and Slatter, on the other, capture the contrasting possible fates that awaited the men, women, and children held as property in slavery’s mid-Atlantic borderland—slave states that were tantalizingly close to free states. They could try to flee north, with great difficulty and at huge risk to their lives and safety. Or they could take their chances and stay put, enduring whatever physical or sexual abuse their enslaver might perpetrate, and risk being sold south at his whim. It was a terrible, terrifying predicament, and the two desperate possibilities fed on one another, as Smallwood knew well.
“I frequently had lots of slaves concealed about in Washington,” he wrote, “who had fled to me for safety when they got wind that their masters were about to sell them to the slave traders.”
But there was an excruciating irony: if the enslaved were caught trying to escape to avoid the hazard of being sold south, their punishment would often be exactly that. Their owner, no longer trusting that his property was secure, would drop the would-be runaway at Slatter’s jail to await the next ship to New Orleans. This intertwining of the domestic slave trade and the underground railroad would continue to the Civil War. It is a stirring, agonizing chapter in the story of a foundational American crime, one whose consequences continue to haunt us every single day.
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Copyright © 2023 by Scott Shane.
Scott Shane was a reporter for 15 years at The New York Times, where he was twice a member of teams that won Pulitzer Prizes, and before that for 21 years at The Baltimore Sun. His two previous books are Dismantling Utopia, a firsthand account of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Objective Troy, the story of an American terrorist killed in a drone strike on orders of President Obama. In 2019-2020 he was a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where he has taught courses on media and on the Russian attack on the 2016 American presidential election.