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1 Beaverton African American Studies- Slavery and Reconstruction

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Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America


Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America Cover



Author Q & A

An Interview With Fergus Bordewich

How did you come to write the book?

In a sense, I grew up with the Underground Railroad. I was raised in New York State, near a neighborhood that was said to have been founded by fugitives who came north via the underground. My mother, who was a civil rights activist who worked with American Indians, often cited the Underground Railroad as an embodiment of moral commitment and personal courage. In more recent years, the story of the Underground Railroad has increasingly become a way for both white and black Americans to talk about the painful history slavery in the United States. There has been no serious attempt to write a comprehensive history of the underground for more than a century. This book is an attempt to fill that void.

One of the book's strengths is that it is peopled with such incredible characters, from the runaway slave Josiah Henson to the Quaker Levi Coffin, to conductors George De Baptiste and David Ruggles. Do you have a favorite?

Well, one is David Ruggles, the incredibly bold young African-American who created the underground in New York City, in the 1830s. In the face of terrible personal abuse and physical threats, he repeatedly defied slave-hunters, hostile city authorities, and even the opposition of some fellow abolitionists. What I admire most about him was his unflagging, often lonely determination: he acted as if there was nothing he couldn't do. For an African-American of his time, this kind of self-confidence was truly extraordinary.

What is the most unusual place your research took you?

I visited scores of sites related to the underground, from Vermont to Kansas. One which touched me deeply was an overgrown streambed near Guilford College, just outside Greensboro, North Carolina. As a young man, the Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin and his collaborators secreted fugitive slaves there as early as the 1820s. To realize that they were doing this kind of work in the heart of the slave-holding South, at incredible risk to themselves, was profoundly moving. The streambed is nondescript, no different from many others in the vicinity. But it was a small battlefield in the moral war for the nation's soul.

What is the biggest myth about the Underground Railroad?

That the underground was a system of secret tunnels and hidey-holes. Exotic hiding places were in fact extremely rare, and unnecessary in most places. The true history of the underground is really about people, about the raw determination of African-Americans to be free, the moral radicalism of white abolitionists, and their collaboration in the first interracial political movement in American history.

Very few, if any slaves made their way out of the South via a railroad. The UGR got started before trains were in effect. Why, then, did trains become the overriding symbol of the Underground Railroad?

The period of the most rapid growth in the underground, from the 1830s through the 1850s, exactly coincided with the equally dramatic expansion of railroads. The lingo of railroading was like the language of the Internet today. The exotic new idiom of "trains," "engines," "lines," "stations," and "passenger" lent itself perfectly to what the underground was already doing: in effect, it gave the underground a universal language that everyone understood.

The Quakers played a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad. In terms of American religions, how did they come to have such a central role?

Quakers were the first — though by no means the only — religious group to denounce slavery, and to require their members to cease owning slaves. Countless Quakers were influenced by the writings of John Woolman, who in the 1750s argued that emancipation of the slave was essential to personal salvation, writing that "the Color of a Man avails nothing, in Matters of Right and Equity," a very radical idea at the time. Although Quakers numbered only about 2 percent of the population, they were often very influential in their communities, and exerted a moral authority far beyond their mere numbers. They played a dominant role in many early anti-slavery societies.

You call the Underground Railroad — not the Civil Rights Movement the first multiracial social movement in the country. Can you elaborate a bit.

In the Underground Railroad, blacks and whites discovered each other for the first time as allies in a common struggle, learning to rely on each other neither as master upon slave, nor child upon parent, but as soldiers in a common struggle. Apart from concrete help it provided to tens of thousands of fugitives, the underground's greatest achievement was its creation of the nation's first truly free zone of interracial activity where blacks not only directed complex logistical and financial operations, but also, in some places, supervised support networks that included white men and women who were accorded no special status owing to their skin color.

The story of Jonathan Walker is pretty remarkable in terms of the personal risk he took? Why do you think ordinary people took such extraordinary risks? What gave them the moral courage?

Walker's story was one of the most heroic underground exploits on record. He helped a group of fugitives escape from Pensacola, Florida, in an effort to reach British territory in the Bahamas. As a sailor who had suffered privation and cruelty aboard ship, Walker felt a deep personal kinship with the plight of slaves. Like the great majority of white participants in the underground, he also regarded slavery as a sin that corrupted all Americans, and they saw underground work as a redemptive act mandated by God — a form of prayer in action. Black members of the underground didn't require the theological or philosophical motivations that drove most whites: their commitment usually came from a fierce visceral passion for freedom.

There were a number of communal experiments for fugitive slaves, such as the Dawn Colony, the community Josiah Henson helped found in Canada. Can you elaborate on how these organizations came to be considered viable living situations for freed slaves?

Most of these communities were in southern Ontario. They served, on one hand, as terminals for the Underground Railroad. In a broader sense, they were also laboratories of freedom. That is, they were places where former slaves learned how to live as free men and women. Most were, for the first time, encountering the market economy, salaries, electoral politics, and issues of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. In communities like Dawn, they received support, guidance, and education.

How essential was the Fugitive Slave Act in the Underground Railroad's expansion?

The act's sponsors hoped that it would put an end to the Underground Railroad, and compel Northerners to return escaped slaves to their masters. But it had almost exactly the opposite effect. The act enraged Northern public opinion, and prompted many fence-sitting Yankees to lend their support to the underground.

What does the Canaan in the title refer to?

Frederick Douglass remembered fellow slaves repeatedly singing: O Canaan, sweet Canaan
I am bound for the land of Canaan.

As Douglass put it, this meant "something more than a hope of reaching heaven." Canaan, to slaves, meant the free territory, the North.

Product Details

The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America
Bordewich, Fergus
Bordewich, Fergus M.
by Fergus Bordewich
United States - Civil War
Social history
United States - 19th Century
Underground railroad
Ethnic Studies - African American Studies - Histor
Ethnic Studies - African American Studies - General
Antislavery movements -- United States.
Edition Description:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.48x6.40x1.39 in. 2.00 lbs.

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » African American Studies » Slavery and Reconstruction
History and Social Science » US History » 1800 to Civil War

Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$7.95 In Stock
Product details 560 pages Amistad Press - English 9780060524302 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Though the Underground Railroad is one of the touchstones of American collective memory, there's been no comprehensive, accessible history of the secret movement that delivered more than 100,000 runaway slaves to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. Journalist Bordewich (Killing the White Man's Indian) fills this gap with a clear, utterly compelling survey of the Railroad from its earliest days in Revolution-era America through the Civil War and the extension of the vote to African Americans in 1870. Using an impressive array of archival and contemporary sources (letters, autobiographies, tax records and slave narratives, as well as new scholarship), Bordewich reveals the Railroad to be much more complicated — and much more remarkable — than is usually understood. As a progressive movement that integrated people across races and was underwritten by secular political theories but carried out by fervently religious citizens in the midst of a national spiritual awakening, the clandestine network was among the most fascinatingly diverse groups ever to unite behind a common American cause. What makes Bordewich's work transcend the confines of detached social history is his emphasis on the real lives and stories of the Railroad's participants. Religious extremists, left-wing radicals and virulent racists all emerge as fully realized characters, flawed but determined people doing what they believed was right, and every chapter has at least one moment — a detail, a vignette, a description — that will transport readers to the world Bordewich describes. The men and women of this remarkable account will remain with readers for a long time to come." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "A vivid reconstruction of abolitionism?s most daring act of rebellion....Rich in detail and solid storytelling: sure to awaken interest in the peculiar anti-institution."
"Review" by , "A rich, spellbinding, and readable narrative."
"Review" by , "Rich in detail, [and] its ability to evoke the emotions, sights and sounds of these clandestine ventures."
"Review" by , "Dramatizes a shining moment in American history — a book filled with unsung heroes and revolutionary acts of trust."
"Review" by , "Bound for Canaan recaptures this grand history with the insightfulness, comprehensiveness, and narrative vigor the subject demands."
"Review" by , "Bound For Canaan reveals in stunning detail and beautiful prose the inner workings of this clandestine system." Kate Clifford, Ph.D. author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero
"Review" by , "This fast-paced narrative is the best account we have of the network known as the Underground Railroad."
"Review" by , "A masterful story — a deeply American story."
"Review" by , "An excellent close to a definitive history as we're likely to see."
"Review" by , "A profoundly American tale."
"Review" by , "All in all, it's a part of American history that everyone should know — and great reading, too."
"Review" by , "Readers interested in learning about historical figures in the Underground Railroad other than Harriet Tubman will enjoy this work."
"Synopsis" by , An important book of epic scope on America's first racially integrated, religiously inspired political movement for change: the Underground Railroad, a movement peopled by daring heroes and heroines, and everyday folk. 16-page insert. Map.
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