Philadelphia, 1825. Five young, free black boys are lured onto a small ship with the promise of food and pay. They are instead met with blindfolds, ropes, and knives. Over four long months, their kidnappers drive them overland into the Cotton Kingdom to be sold as slaves. Determined to resist, the boys form a tight brotherhood as they struggle to free themselves and find their way home. Their ordeal shines a spotlight on the Reverse Underground Railroad, a black market network of human traffickers and slave traders who stole away thousands of legally free African Americans from their families in order to fuel slavery's rapid expansion in the decades before the Civil War. -- adapted from jacket
In this book Bell examines the story of 4 free black boys and 1 runaway kidnapped into slavery in Philadelphia in the 1820s. They, a woman legally purchased, and a woman kidnapped in Delaware were forced into a coffle overland to Mississippi with their small-time kidnappers. One boy (the literate one, unsurprisingly) was sold in Tuscaloosa. The rest were taken on. And then, in Mississippi, one of the boys was beaten to death by his kidnapper. And then another told his entire story to a potential purchaser.
And what did that man do? He told. He got the courts involved. The county official wrote to the mayor of Philadelphia, and in the end--well over a year later--the kidnap victims were freed and returned home.
The story itself is amazing--the cast of characters that made this seemingly impossible story happen. A nearly bankrupt wanna by plantation owner, county- and state-level government officials, the mayor of Philadelphia and his high constable, judges, two Methodists, an Alabama jury, a Scottish immigrant who traveled from Philadelphia to Alabama on his own dime to testify, and random people called in on favors--all came together to get the 4 surviving kidnap victims home.
The story is fascinating, so many people I would not expect to care affected the outcome of this particular instance. Mayor Watson of Philadelphia tried to rescue other victims kidnapped by the same Delaware gang, but was largely unsuccessful. Solomon Northrup chronicled his own story in [book:Twelve Years a Slave|18478222]--and while the story Bell tells only covers about 2 years, the time lag before telephones, the internet, and truly reliable mail service is astonishing. The kidnap victims spent weeks trekking overland, and then months and months essentially living as and being treated as slaves (back pay was not awarded in their freedom suit), just waiting for mail to go back and forth.
The other amazing thing about this story is the sources. And the research it took to pull them together. Court minutes and documents, newspaper articles, pamphlets, journals, legislative records, minutes from abolition groups, and so many more primary sources--they are out there, in different states and counties and archives, just waiting to be combined with their counterparts from other places.
I'm not sure I can put into words how vital this book is. Schools teach us a sanitized version of history, which does, perhaps, more harm than good.
While the content is intense, the writing style is an easy to read, casual narrative. This isn't a long, time-consuming read requiring a huge commitment. Almost half of the book is the research notes at the end.
The book contains quite a few images. I read this in ebook format, which never really does justice to images. They're small and it's difficult to see detail. I highly recommend buying the print version.
*I received a review copy from the publisher, via NetGalley.*
This part of our history has never been so clearly researched, and spoken about with the appropriate attention and essential compassion. I was shocked learn