Flee north A forgotten hero and the fight for freedom in slavery's borderland

Scott Shane, 1954-

Book - 2023

"A riveting account of the extraordinary abolitionist, liberator, and writer Thomas Smallwood, who bought his own freedom, led hundreds out of slavery, and popularized the term "underground railroad," from Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist, Scott Shane. Flee North tells the story for the first time of an American hero all but lost to history. Born into slavery, Thomas Smallwood was free, self-educated, and working as a shoemaker a short walk from the U.S. Capitol by the 1840s. He recruited a young white activist, Charles Torrey, and together they began to organize mass escapes from Washington, Baltimore, and surrounding counties to freedom in the north. They were racing against an implacable enemy: men like Hope Sl...atter, the region's leading slave trader, part of a lucrative industry that would tear one million enslaved people from their families and sell them to the brutal cotton and sugar plantations of the deep south. Men, women, and children in imminent danger of being sold south turned to Smallwood, who risked his own freedom to battle what he called "the most inhuman system that ever blackened the pages of history." And he documented the escapes in satirical newspaper columns, mocking the slaveholders, the slave traders and the police who worked for them. At a time when Americans are rediscovering a tragic and cruel history and struggling anew with the legacy of white supremacy, this book -- the first to tell the extraordinary story of Smallwood -- will offer complicated heroes, genuine villains, and a powerful narrative set in cities still plagued by shocking racial inequity today"--

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor New Shelf 973.7115/Shane (NEW SHELF) Checked In
New York : Celadon Books 2023.
Main Author
Scott Shane, 1954- (author)
First edition
Physical Description
viii, 340 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : color illustrations, maps ; cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 305-327) and index.
  • Prologue
  • 1. The Most Inhuman System That Ever Blackened the Pages of History
  • 2. Until No Slave Should Be Found in Our Land
  • 3. That Mock Metropolis of Freedom
  • 4. The Flesh-Mongers
  • 5. Slavery's Borderland
  • 6. Safe from the Fangs of Robert Gilmor
  • 7. The Laughingstock Letters
  • 8. That Vile Wretch Slatter
  • 9. Very Vigilant Officers!
  • 10. Between Two Fires
  • 11. A Fugitive from Justice
  • 12. Perhaps Reckless
  • 13. Let the Strife Go On
  • 14. Fly to Canada, and Begin Anew
  • 15. Resident Capitalist
  • Epilogue: No Breeze Comes
  • Appendix: Thomas Smallwood's Sam Welter Letters: A Selection
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

For every hero like Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vesey, there are countless others whose names history does not remember as well. One of these figures is Thomas Smallwood. Born into slavery, he became free by the 1840s. Working with a white activist, Charles Torrey, they freed countless enslaved people from Baltimore and other areas, taking special care to ensure enslaved people were not "sold down the river" to the Deep South, from where it was harder to reach a free state. Taking readers through Smallwood's humble beginnings, Flee North expands to Washington's small community of free Black people and how Smallwood became involved in the abolitionist movement. There, the narrative moves to Boston and explores Torrey's background, expanding on how these figures forged their abolitionist alliance. Written in an engaging, dynamic style, Flee North will captivate readers who want to know how people like Smallwood succeeded in duping countless enslavers. The fascinating tale of a swashbuckling abolitionist and his white activist companion will make readers wish for a film adaptation. This book is a tale of triumph in the face of unspeakable adversity. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Pulitzer Prize--winning journalist Shane (Objective Troy) brings to vivid life the exploits of abolitionist Thomas Smallwood in this exhilarating account. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1801, Smallwood eventually bought his own freedom, established a shoemaking business in Washington, D.C., and at the age of 40 decided "to wage his own personal war on slavery," orchestrating the escape of hundreds of enslaved African Americans to freedom in the North and Canada. He often personally led them, but also established, with the help of allies including white abolitionist Charles Torrey, the beginnings of the covert network known as the "underground railroad"--a phrase Smallwood himself coined. It originated as an imaginative joke--or "running gag," as Shane calls it--that recurred in Smallwood's many "laughingstock letters" to an abolitionist newspaper published in Albany, N.Y. For two years, from 1842 to 1843, the paper (where Torrey was editor) published these scathing and erudite dispatches from Washington, in which Smallwood (writing as "Samivel Weller, Jr.," a reference to The Pickwick Papers) boasted about the success of the rescue missions while taunting and shaming the "bereft" slaveholders, many of whom were members of the federal government. As the police closed in, suspecting Smallwood of being the mysterious Weller, he had to make his own intrepid escape to Canada. This astonishing and propulsive narrative rights a historical wrong by returning Smallwood to prominence. It's an absolute must-read. (Sept.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Pulitzer Prize--winning reporter Shane (Objective Troy) has deftly woven this historical account about Thomas Smallwood, born in enslavement but who bought his freedom and became a contributor in the success of the Underground Railroad. Smallwood, who ran a small shoemaking establishment (circa 1840s) within sight of the White House, helped freedom seekers in Baltimore and Washington, DC. He recruited Charles T. Torrey, a young, white activist/minister/journalist, to help him. Torrey wrote satirical newspaper columns that documented their efforts and mocked enslavers, traders, and people who thought it their right to keep people enslaved. Smallwood and Torrey's partnership forms the basis of this book and serves as a wonderful introduction for readers unaware of all that went on before the Civil War. VERDICT An exceptionally well-written book that takes readers into the life and political development of Smallwood. General readers and all types of libraries will need to add this book to their to-be-read lists and collections.--Amy Lewontin

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A rich history of two men who were active in helping enslaved people escape to Canada in the years before the Civil War. After buying his freedom, Thomas Smallwood (1801-1883) was a shoemaker who worked out of Washington and Baltimore "engineering escapes from bondage on an unprecedented scale." As Shane's narrative opens, Smallwood loads 15 enslaved people into a wagon and takes to the rutted highway north, managing to evade the white slave patrollers in pursuit. In alliance with Smallwood was a New England abolitionist named Charles Torrey, who was just as daring and who shared Smallwood's penchant for sending mocking letters to slaveholders after their "chattels" were safely delivered to Canada. Smallwood eventually racked up enough enemies that he had to remain in Canada, where he had a "new house in the very center of Toronto." He also claimed, with reason, to have been the first to organize these mass escapes of enslaved people, calling himself "general agent of all the branches of the National Underground Railroad, Steam Packet, Canal and Foot-it Company." (The "underground railway" moniker, Shane reminds readers, derived from the fact that the escapees disappeared so quickly and completely that is was as if they had boarded a hidden, fast train.) Alas, even in the abolitionist business, the erasure of Black participants is evident: Torrey made the same claim, and the history books remember him as a hero who died of tuberculosis while imprisoned after having finally been caught. Both Smallwood and Torrey merit remembrance and honor, for what they did was at the risk of their lives. Along the way, readers will find satisfying the demise of one of their chief tormentors, killed by yellow fever, which ironically "had first traveled to the New World aboard the slave ships from Africa." A forgotten chapter in abolitionist history is restored to history in a lively, readable narrative. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.