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Judgment Day
Part 1: 1450-1750
Part 2: 1750-1805
Part 3: 1791-1831
<---Part 4: 1831-1865

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Fugitive Slaves and Northern Racism

Harriet Jacobs endured seven years of hiding in an attic crawl space in order to escape the terror and misery of her life as a slave. "I lived in that little dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to move my limbs, for nearly seven years.... Yet I would have chosen this, rather than my lot as a slave."
The next morning I was on deck as soon as the day dawned.... We watched the reddening sky, and saw the great orb come up out of the water, as it seemed. Soon the waves began to sparkle, and every thing caught the beautiful glow. Before us lay the city of strangers. We had escaped from slavery.... But we were alone in the world.

- Harriet Jacobs

Jacobs chose her prison rather than continue living in fear of her master's repeated sexual threats. She needed to escape, but she dared not leave her children. Through a peephole, she watched her children growing up. In 1842, friends helped her escape to Philadelphia, where her daughter had already been taken. Jacobs later wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under a pseudonym. When her memoir was published, its graphic description of abuse of slave women was unique among slave narratives and was shocking to American readers. Harriet Jacobs
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

After the Civil War, Harriet returned to North Carolina to help the recently freed slaves in her childhood home adjust to their new life.

Letter from Harriet Jacobs to Edna Dow Cheney

For many fugitive slaves, the perils of escape were increased by the uncertainty of what life held for them in the free states, should they succeed. The Underground Railroad was a support network providing assistance to runaway slaves. Fugitives were led by "conductors" along the path north, to "stations" where they could eat and rest out of sight during the day. Harriet Tubman, who had escaped slavery at age 29, returned to the South 19 times to lead other slaves to freedom.

Harriet Tubman
The Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman's efforts to free a captured fugitive slave are described in an Incident in Troy, New York.

The slave narratives themselves served many functions. They were escape stories, which American readers loved. They were stories of from slavery to freedom. They were classic American tales, in that they were ascension narratives -- stories of people rising out of the depths of something to something higher. But probably the most important function those narratives served for black abolitionists is that it gave them their own authentic voice. It gave them a way now to declare their own freedom in their own language.

- David Blight, historian

Some fugitive slaves risked recapture by telling their stories. When Frederick Douglass published his autobiography in 1845, it became an international bestseller. Other slave narratives , such as Josiah Henson's, sold thousands of copies as well. These personal descriptions of life under slavery made it impossible for the injustice of slavery to be ignored and allowed the writers to publicly confront their former masters in writing. The message of the slave narratives was furthered enormously by the immense popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, with 300,000 copies printed in 1852 alone.

Frederick Douglass
Slave Narratives/Uncle Tom's Cabin
The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act

When California, one of the territories gained by the U.S. in the Mexican War, petitioned to become a state, the controversy over whether slavery should exist in these new territories of the Southwest led to the Compromise of 1850. After a heated debate in Congress, it was decided that California would be a free state but in return, slaveholders were promised a much more stringent Fugitive Slave Act. Under this law, any bystander, white or black, could be forced to assist in the capture of a fugitive slave. Special commissioners were awarded $10 for each fugitive returned to slavery and only $5 for those who were acquitted. Blacks who had been living in freedom for years were hunted down by slaveholders armed with the new law.

The recapture in 1854 of Anthony Burns, who had fled from Virginia to the "Great Abolitionist Headquarters" of Boston, brought the controversy over the new law to a head. Hundreds of black and white abolitionists gathered while several stormed the courthouse to set Burns free. U.S. Marines and artillery were sent in to quell the uprising, which swelled to thousands in the days that followed. Burns was convicted and returned to Virginia, amid terrible protests. In the following year, money was raised to buy his freedom. Anthony Burns had a galvanizing effect on northerners.

Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act
Anthony Burns Speaks
Letter from Anthony Burns to the Baptist Church

Despite the actions of abolitionists, life for free blacks was far from idyllic, due to northern racism. Most free blacks lived in racial enclaves in the major cities of the North: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. There, poor living conditions led to disease and death. In a Philadelphia study in 1846, practically all poor black infants died shortly after birth. Even wealthy blacks were prohibited from living in white neighborhoods due to whites' fear of declining property values.

African Americans were either refused admission to, or segregated in, hotels, restaurants, and theaters. Blacks had limited work and educational opportunities. They were often denied access to public transportation in cities, and allowed on trains only in "Jim Crow" segregated cars. They were also denied civil rights, such as the right to vote and the right to testify in court in many states, thus leaving them open to attack by thieves and mobs, and to being captured and sold by slave catchers. Black men and women were routinely attacked in the streets, and from 1820 to 1850, black churches, schools and homes were looted and burned in riots in major cities throughout the North, forcing many blacks to flee to Canada.

African Americans were refused admission... segregated... and denied... the right to vote...

Northern blacks were forced to live in a white man's democracy, and while not legally enslaved, subject to definition by their race. In their all-black communities, they continued to build their own churches and schools and to develop vigilance committees to protect members of the black community from hostility and violence.

Race-Based Legislation in the North

Next: Westward Expansion

Part 4 Narrative:
Map: From Coast to Coast
Antebellum Slavery
• Fugitive Slaves and Northern Racism
Westward Expansion
The Civil War

Part 4: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide

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