Prior to the Civil War, one of the most mythic routes for escaping slavery was flight to Canada. Supposedly the northern neighbor offered safe harbor. But it was a mighty long way to get there. Cross rivers and plains with slave-catchers in hot pursuit with hell-hounds hot on your trail.
There were people–abolitionists–who would help us out but there was no certainty in being a runaway. Indeed, the dis-United States even had a fugitive slave law and people who made it a business to capture escapees. There are many, many tales and truths about the trials and tribulations one encountered in the struggle to live free, especially the whispered hardships and exhilarations about crossing over the border into the alleged promise land–if you could get there.
But the truth is relatively few of the millions of us held in bondage ever made it to the far north. Howsoever, there was a closer sanctuary that is seldom acknowledged for fear that real freedom would catch on. The first place was Florida and joining up with the Black Seminoles who, in alliance with indigenous peoples, fought the U.S. Army to a standstill and eventual treaty designated accommodation cross the Mississippi River in Oklahoma, where the U.S. government was giving away land to homesteaders, and as well in Kansas were there was a growing movement for a Black state led by a fearless man named Benjamin “Pap” Singleton. Of course most history books are silent about that migration and the subsequent legal, as well as extra-judicial battles that took place.
What few books, newspapers, and even popular accounts of Black freedom struggles ever focus on is what happened south of southern slavery down Mexico way. There was a national law that once one set foot into Mexico proper, one was legally free. All you had to do was cross the Rio Grande River, which was closer by thousands of miles, and you and yours could live as free citizens. Of course, it meant learning Spanish rather then being forced to use English, and there was no guarantee that life would be easy but legally, and more importantly practically and within reach of those who had little if anything except their will to be free.
The battles between the existing authorities of that time period are documented in an exciting new book: SouthTo Freedom–Runaway Slaves To Mexico And The Road To The Civil War by Alice L. Baumgartner. South To Freedom is about the machinations that went on among and betwixt the then ruling legal powers; what Black folk thought about and acted upon is not the focus. Our history is yet to be fully told and extolled. But our fierce history is there to be excavated and illuminated. Soon come.
The work is getting done. We were viewed as property, and as the Dred Scott decision made clear, we had no human rights. Just the fact of us running away, effectively moved us from the category of property into the realm of human beings seeking freedom.
The common saying that the truth will set you free, needs to be amended to note that the struggle to be considered human beings rather than property, and all the battles that go with that struggle, that is what our history is essentially about–and that story, only we can intimately and truthfully tell.