Fugitive Slaves in the Antebellum South and the Question of Freedom in American History

The following is a guest blog post by Viola Franziska Müller, author of Escape to the City: Fugitive Slaves in the Antebellum Urban South, which is available now everywhere books are sold.

Tens of thousands of people escaped slavery in the antebellum South. While the bulk of scholarship has focused on those who fled to the northern states and outside of the country, the majority actually stayed within the South. My new book, Escape to the City, tells the stories of the men and women who found refuge in Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans, and Richmond.

Staying in the slaveholding states, fugitive slaves could not expect to ever be legally free. Always wary of being caught, many moved clandestinely towards and within the cities. As I show, fugitives used false papers to conceal their identities, or tried to avoid law enforcement and contact with authorities because they were not able to produce documentation at all. They camouflaged themselves among the (free) Black population, which tended to congregate in the South’s larger cities. Runaways’ mobility, knowledge of the broader world, and the complicity of Black Americans were important preconditions for avoiding the reach of slaveholders and police.

The fact that so many absconders from slavery stayed in the South invites us to rethink the meaning of “freedom” as the overarching theme of American history. Not all historical accounts are optimistic and recognize freedom as a linear or expeditious process. Yet, they often do see freedom as the ultimate goal that, even if unachievable, guided Americans’ lived experiences. In Escape to the City, I propose that freedom cannot fully capture the struggles of Black antebellum southerners. Following runaway slaves into the cities of the South shows that the way we typically understand notions of freedom in the context of American slavery—foremost legal freedom—was not on their minds as an ever-present, all-encompassing goal. Rather, the highest priority of most people was to be self-asserted, meaning to live socially and economically independently from a master or mistress who held a claim to their labor, families, and places of residence. This was also possible in the South.

Those who went to southern cities remained within the jurisdiction of the very slaveholding society that stipulated that they were slaves; their legal status did not change. Therefore, the lives that these men and women built for themselves had no basis in law. Their sheer presence in the cities was illegal. This brings them close to present-day undocumented migrants, a consideration which implies that they were living somewhere without the authority to do so. 

These striking parallels between slave fugitivity and present-day undocumented migration led me to a new theoretical framework to study fugitive slaves in southern cities. In Escape to the City, I draw on questions and insights that migration studies have brought us. They include turning the focus on the mobility, networks, legal status, and work of people who fled, and especially on the attitudes of those who received them. Perhaps most crucially, migration research is rarely occupied by the concepts of freedom and unfreedom to evaluate the experiences of refugees and their host communities. Rather, this approach pays close attention to reactions of different social groups to newcomers, the political and economic impact of migration, and the contestation of space, which is particularly fruitful when studying cities. 

“The highest priority of most people was to be self-asserted, meaning to live socially and economically independently from a master or mistress who held a claim to their labor, families, and places of residence.”

So, what if we leave the question of freedom aside temporarily and, instead, think about fugitive slaves as living in ambiguous conditions, predisposed to being undocumented, vulnerable to discretionary policing, and susceptible to coercive labor? How was it possible to find refuge under these circumstances?

The answers are to be read in my book: Thousands of runaways from slavery were able to find spaces in southern cities where they could live unmolested through the interplay of different actors. Fugitives, their allies, and their receiving communities crafted these spaces deliberately; slaveholders were unable to prevent flight; local authorities did not attribute sufficient importance to the issue; and urban employers benefitted from it. And the growing White urban middle classes, driven by a desire to distinguish themselves from Black and poor people, constructed physical places that supported the invisibility of people who should not be there. 

Including the host communities into the study of fugitivity unearths the bigger picture of the Black experience before the Civil War. Escape to the City shows that virtually all Americans of African descent were exposed to arbitrary policing, extralegal violence, and civil disability before the law. While this laid the cornerstone for the survival of fugitive slaves, real freedom remained elusive for the Black population as a whole: all Black people were illegal in one way or another, always in violation of some law, always presumed criminal. As a result, the urban fugitive fit right in. 

Viola Franziska Müller is a social historian at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany.