I keep learning more and more about the horrors of slavery. I had of course heard about the Underground Railroad by which a network of people, most famously Harriet Tubman, helped runaway slaves from the slave states in the south escape. But I have not been aware that that there was also a Reverse Underground Railroad that kidnapped free black people, mostly young boys in the north, and sold them as slaves in the south. The 2013 film 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was captured and sold into slavery this way, but that case was unusual in that he was well-educated and middle-aged.
In the October/November 2019 issue of The Progressive magazine, Bill Lueders reviews a book that discusses the case of five boys Cornelius, Sam, Enos, Alex, and Joe, aged eight to fifteen, who were so kidnapped in 1825.
Stolen, a new book by Richard Bell, tells the remarkable and brutal story of this other railroad, focusing on one horrifying case for which significant documentation exists. It involves the abduction of five African American boys from their families in Philadelphia in 1825.
“[T]hey were now chained to a stout metal tie that had seen a lot of prior use,” Bell writes. “After a time they likely turned their frantic, exhausted attention to the iron locks that cuffed their calves. Clenching their teeth in agony, scraping skin and bone, and drawing blood, they must have tried repeatedly to force the shackles over their swollen ankles. It was no use. They were stuck.”
One of the boys (Joe) died of a severe beating. Another boy Cornelius was sold into slavery. A third Sam was, along with Enos and Alex, offered for sale but he told his prospective owner that he was not a slave but a captive from the north. The man went to a lawyer who contacted the mayor of Philadelphia and this set in motion a long legal battle the resulted in the boys eventually being liberated in 1826. Interestingly, officials from the southern states supported the boys’ case. Why? As Bell’s book states, it was not due to abhorrence of slavery but out of self-interest.
The boys’ cause drew substantial support from officials in Southern states—not because they found slavery abhorrent but because they recognized that the South’s ability to track down slaves who had escaped to Northern states depended on their demonstrated willingness to help enforce laws against the abduction and transport of free black people.
“To pursue and prosecute the agents of the Reverse Underground Railroad and to liberate their victims was thus to join a broader public-relations strategy to promote the South as a place where individual liberty was respected and private property was protected,” Bell writes. Such efforts were meant to “ensure the survival and long-term success of a new slave society in the Deep South, and to defend the legal domestic slave trade from external interference.”
It is interesting how these southern official respected laws but were oblivious to the deep immorality of the institution of slavery, however ‘legal’ it may have been considered.