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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Community

Convention of fugitive slaves and free blacks, Cazenovia, New York, 1850
- Arnold Gragston, a slave Underground Railroad "conductor," WPA narrative, ca. 1937, excerpt
- John Parker, a free Underground Railroad "conductor," narrative, 1885, excerpt
- Boston Vigilance Committee, expenses, 1850-1855
- Fugitive Slave Aid
- Member Expenses
- "Letter to the American Slaves," convention of free blacks and fugitive slaves, 1850, excerpts (PDF)

Of the many slaves who ran away between the American Revolution and the Civil War, perhaps 100,000 reached freedom. The fugitive slave, with a bundle of belongings on a stick over his back, is an iconic symbol of slavery. And the network of escape havens known as the Underground Railroad is familiar to every student of American history. How did African Americans participate in slaves' escapes? What aid did they give runaways who arrived on the free side of the Ohio River, or in Boston or Canada? Here we will look at the communal efforts to help runaways through the Underground Railroad, "vigilance committees," and the "Negro convention" movement in the north.

Arnold Gragston and John Parker were African American "conductors" on the Underground Railroad; both helped runaway slaves escape across the Ohio River from Kentucky. In their narratives they describe how they became involved in the endeavor, how they dealt with terrified runaways, and how they avoided capture or detection (or did they? Gragston wonders if his master "did know and wanted me to get the slaves away that way so he wouldn't have to cause hard feelins' by freein' 'em").

Once fugitive slaves arrived in free territory, many received help from individuals and, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 removed a runaway's security in the north, from associations of free blacks called "vigilance committees" (see supplemental sites on the Fugitive Slave Act below). From an account book of the Boston Vigilance Committee, we view several years' expenses for providing food to fugitives, printing warnings against slave hunters, hiring carriages to take fugitives further north, and promoting their committee's cause. Entries such as nine dollars for "six days of watching a slave hunter" and five dollars for "alarm bells" bring home the reality of a fugitive's vulnerability.

As black newspapers, the "Negro convention" movement, and the abolition movement grew among northern blacks, the question of how best to assist slaves, fugitives, and freedmen became more central in their deliberations (see #5: Mutual Benefit). One convention of fugitive slaves and abolition activists in Cazenovia, New York, led by Frederick Douglass, issued a "Letter to the American Slaves" in 1850 to dispense specific guidelines for slaves considering insurrection and for fugitives newly arrived in the north. Knowing that few if any slaves would have access to the letter, the authors also address political realities of the polarized nation and chastise free blacks who do not join the fugitive or abolition cause. "Live! Live to escape from slavery!" the letter concludes, even though we in the north can do little but pray to help you. (22 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What factors promoted or impeded a successful flight from slavery?
  2. What individual and group efforts did free blacks pursue to help slaves in the South and fugitive slaves in the North?
  3. What aspects of these efforts were controversial among free African Americans? How did they address the controversy?
  4. What direct and indirect messages are contained in the "Letter to the American Slaves" to enslaved people, to newly arrived fugitive slaves, to free blacks, and to white people? What responses are expected from the four groups, as inferred in the document?
  5. Compare the experiences of Arnold Gragston and John Parker as Underground Railroad "conductors." What led them to get involved in the "railroad," and how did they persevere despite the risks to themselves?
  6. After you read the experiences of fugitive slaves in #8: Canada/Mexico, reconsider your answers to these questions.
  7. Compare the community efforts to help fugitive slaves with the postbellum mutual benefit associations presented in The Making of African American Identity: Vol. II, 1865-1917.
  8. Compare the advice (do's and don't's) given to newly arrived fugitives in the North with those given to newly arrived migrants in Chicago (The Making of African American Identity: Vol. III, 1917-1968).

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslaved and free African Americans construct communal identities in antebellum America?
  •  What obstacles did they confront from white people? from other African Americans?
  •  How did they respond to these obstacles?
  •  How did African Americans exercise autonomy and influence through community?

Gragston narrative:  4
Parker narrative:  4
Vigilance Committee: 10 (tables of annotated expenses)
"Letter to Slaves":  4
TOTAL 22 pages
Supplemental Sites
Arnold Gragston, WPA interview, full text in digital images, Library of Congress

The Autobiography of John Parker, online exhibition, Duke University Library

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 On the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, in Harriet Jacobs narrative, from American Experience (PBS)

Boston's Reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law through Voluntary Associations, from

Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The Underground Railroad, sites in the National Registry, National Park Service

The Underground Railroad, from National Geographic

National Underground Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, education resources

An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

- Page from the account book of Francis Jackson, Vigilance Committee of Boston, October 1850. Massachusetts Historical Society; digital image from Permission pending.
- Convention of free blacks and fugitive slaves, Cazenovia, New York, 1850, photograph (detail). Madison County (NY) Historical Society. Permission pending.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. The Enslaved Family   2. Plantation Community   3. Religion   4. Petitions
  5. Mutual Benefit   6. The Black Press   7. Fugitives   8. Canada

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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