Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Library Sketches, Part 2

A friend of mine was in Alabama last week, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, ending in a walk with 80,000 others across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I’d been thinking about her a lot while she made her pilgrimage south, so it seemed appropriate then to be at the Central Public library last week to hear Eric Foner on his new book, Gateway to Freedom: the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, a mix of black and white faces in the crowd:

Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law Professor and a former student of Foner's, began the program by asking the question, "Why hidden?"


Foner called his book a hidden history because so many of the people who formed the loose network of conductors and footmen that made up the Underground Railroad were unknown to American history. During Foner's research, he came across names he'd never heard before, accounts hidden away in library stacks, unread.

"What interests me about these underground conductors is that it was actually an interracial organization, or set of organizations. It’s an example not that common in American history, of black and white people working together for a common cause. There was tension, there were problems, but they managed to communicate with each other, [to send] people to each other and that’s what strikes me."

Kennedy brings up Louis Napoleon as one of his favorite unknowns.

Napoleon, an illiterate, free black man, worked as a porter for abolitionist and editor, Sidney Howard Gay; Napoleon did the footwork for much of Gay's abolitionist activities in and around New York City, finding fleeing slaves at the docks and train stations. Despite signing his name with an X, Napoleon managed to go to court and get writs of habeus corpus in support of fugitive slaves. In one famous case, a lawyer for a slave owner asked sarcastically, "Who is this Louis Napoleon, the Emperor of France?" and John Jay II, the lawyer representing the slave, said, "No, he’s a much better man." 


After the program I ran into Peggy Powell, Nancy Gilmore and Samuel Foster, docents at LA museums— Powell and Foster at the CA African American Museum, Gilmore at the Science Center and a volunteer archivist at the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum, which houses a large collection of African American memorabilia. 

They were eager to talk; Gilmore wished the program were twice as long. Foster found it informative. All wanted to see a continuation of the conversation.

Peggy Powell revealed a hidden family history of her own when she talked about her great, great grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Lightfoot, and his journey along the Underground Railroad, from Kentucky to Ontario, led by a conductor named Henson, a story she had just discovered.


Which proves a point about the system we call the Underground Railroad. It was a fluid moving river, a many branched tributary, for people to help fugitive slaves along the way to freedom. I would be overly optimistic to think anything might change in the narrative that's told in our history books, due to Foner's Gateway to Freedom, but in the meanwhile, let's continue the conversation.

A podcast of this talk (and all ALOUD programs) can be found at: