Arts & Culture

Borderless America

6 min read

From slaves’ point of view, there was no real border between slave, free states

Sometimes what we call something changes the way we see it. Steven Hahn wants to call the groups of escaped slaves who found refuge in the northern United States prior to the Civil War “maroon communities.”

The word “maroon” (from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning “wild, untamed”) usually refers to fugitive slaves, especially from Spanish and Portuguese colonies, who settled in remote locations, often mixing with native populations, and whose existence depended on their ability to elude or defend themselves against their former owners who were bent on recapturing them.

But why use this term to refer to slaves who found their way to freedom in the North, areas in which slavery had been abolished? According to Hahn, the word is appropriate because from the slaves’ point of view there was no real border between slave states and free.

“It’s not that racism thrived on both sides of the border, but that the border itself was illusory.”

Hahn, the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent his career re-examining assumptions about the history of 19th century America, with particular emphasis on the rural South, slavery, and emancipation. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Nation Under Our Feet” (Harvard University Press, 2003), examines the struggles of blacks to win self-determination before, during, and after the Civil War. This past week (Nov. 6-8) Hahn delivered the Nathan I. Huggins Lectures sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

In the first of three lectures, “Slaves at Large: Slavery and the Emancipation Process in the U.S.,” Hahn argued that the thousands of slaves who escaped from plantations in the South to find refuge in the North lived in perpetual fear of being recaptured. Their communities were relatively isolated from the surrounding white society and thus more subject to attack by slave catchers, who derived legal authority from the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850.

The distinction between the slave South and the free-labor North was much less clear than earlier historians have assumed, Hahn said. Although most northern states had banned slavery by the early 19th century, the emancipation process was so gradual that slavery did not really end in many northern states until the late 1840s. Meanwhile, the plantations of the South wielded increasing economic clout, and many U.S. presidents, slave owners themselves, favored a policy of westward expansion that would create new slave states beyond the Mississippi river.

Faced with these threats, communities of free blacks had to be perpetually on guard, Hahn said. They established vigilance committees that monitored waterfronts and reported on the movements of slave catchers, established far-reaching networks of communication, and even organized rescue missions to save blacks from abduction.

“The maroon analogy helps us see the fugitive communities as sites for the creation of a new black consciousness [that] allowed blacks to encounter one another and create their own political language and culture,” Hahn said.

In his second lecture, “Did We Miss the Greatest Slave Rebellion in Modern History?” Hahn took a fresh look at the behavior of blacks during the Civil War and concluded that they acted with far more political understanding, self-agency, and courage than they have been given credit for.

There is much evidence that blacks paid careful attention to both local and national politics during the pre-Civil War era and disseminated news of debates and elections through clandestine communication networks.

“A great many slaves knew about Lincoln and saw him as an ally, an enemy of their owners. Some saw Lincoln’s inauguration as a signal of their own liberation,” Hahn said.

When the war started, slaves began deserting plantations in large numbers and seeking refuge beyond Union lines. The numbers reached half a million before the end of the war.

According to Hahn, this exodus forced the Union to reconsider its position on slavery, whose abolition had not been one of the war’s original objectives. However, faced with large numbers of escaping blacks, the Union army had no choice but to classify them as captured enemy property and confine them to “contraband camps.” Fugitive slaves were at first utilized as workers, but by 1863 they had won the right to fight as Union soldiers, eventually making up 10 percent of the army.

Hahn quoted from the narrative of an escaped slave named Henry Jarvis who in 1861 asked a Union general if he could enlist.

“No,” the general told him. “This is not a black man’s war.”

Jarvis replied: “It will be a black man’s war before it’s through.”

Fighting for the Union was especially hazardous for blacks because the Confederacy saw them not as soldiers but as slaves in rebellion. When captured, they were not treated as prisoners of war but were either summarily executed or re-enslaved. But despite the dangers, about 150,000 black men took up arms for the Union cause. Hahn believes that blacks saw the war as a unique opportunity to finally gain their freedom.

“White slave owners were very powerful, and the prospects of achieving success through rebellion were very slim between 1815 and 1860. They seemed to understand this and waited for the right moment.”

Hahn’s final lecture, “Marcus Garvey, the UNIA, and the Hidden Political History of African Americans,” looked at a powerful early 20th century movement among blacks and its surprising persistence today.

Garvey, a Jamaican-born journalist, entrepreneur, and black nationalist leader, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914, and in 1915 came to the United States where he began speaking about social, political, and economic freedom for people of African descent. He founded a newspaper called Negro World and helped to created the Black Star Line to promote trade within the African diaspora. By 1920, the UNIA claimed four million members with branches throughout the world. The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, investigated Garvey and eventually obtained his conviction for mail fraud. He served a jail sentence and, in 1927, was deported to Jamaica.

Hahn said that in 2005 he stumbled on a meeting of a Philadelphia branch of the UNIA and was surprised to learn that the organization still flourishes throughout the United States, in several African countries, and in Jamaica. He said that while the history of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is well documented and has been extensively studied, Garvey and his organization remain relatively unknown.

Characterized as a “back-to-Africa movement,” Garveyism was actually nothing of the kind, Hahn said. Rather, it called for blacks to unite in order to liberate Africa from colonial oppression and thereby create a free homeland. “Without an independent and powerful Africa, you are lost,” Garvey said.

Although Garvey has been “vilified, disparaged, and lampooned, depicted in comical terms as a political dreamer who misled his followers,” Garvey and his organization deserve serious re-examination by scholars, Hahn said.

“Its legacy has been profound. None of the Black Nationalist movements of the 20th century — from the Nation of Islam to the Black Panthers — would have been possible without it.”