Book Review: Bound for Canaan

Book of the Month

Bound for Canaan

The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad   by Fergus M. Bordewich

I began reading this just before I went to Philly. If I had read it sooner, I may have been able to track down some important historical sites or exhibits there.  I had long connected the Underground Railroad with Philadelphia in my mind. But Bordewich’s book took me to other places in Ohio and Indiana, escape routes along the Ohio River and introduced me to many noteworthy figures that I had not read about before.

Many of the white abolitionists who aided fugitive slaves in reaching Canada were Quakers. In Ripley, Ohio, the Reverend John Rankin, his nine sons and 4 daughters all worked in the Underground Railroad.

The Rankins aided this mother and babe later immortalized by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Once called the President of the underground railroad, Levi Coffin was another Quaker who aided fugitives on their way to freedom.  Settling in Newport, Indiana in 1826, he and his wife began to provide shelter and passage for runaway slaves.He chided other Friends in the area who began to feed and clothe the fugitives but were “timid about sheltering them under their roof.”

Levi Coffin

Most of us have read about slaves who escaped to the North but bravely went back at great risk of capture to lead other African Americans to freedom.  Harriet Tubman was probably the most well-known and maybe also the bravest “conductor” on the line.  She returned to the South numerous times to aid others in reaching freedom.

Having escaped slavery in Maryland in 1849, she returned to bring out her husband John, only to find he had taken another wife and refused to go with her. Giving the clothes she had prepared for him to another fugitive, she led a group of willing fugitives back north with her.

Harriet Tubman

I realized for the first time the connection between anti-slavery sentiment of this period and the rising awareness of women’ rights. The author believes it is not coincidence that made Harriet Tubman prominent in abolitionists circles just at the time women began to demand their rights. She was a public example of a woman who actively took part in a social movement.

“Abolitionism was the threshold through which American women took their first steps in to the nation’s political life,”says Bordewich.

I was particularly fascinated to read about the connection of Elizabeth Cady Stanton with the anti-slavery movement. She was a first cousin of abolitionist Gerrit Smith and the weeks she spent at his home in the summer influenced her greatly.Stanton was shocked when she attended the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in  1840. She and the other women activists were not allowed to participate as delegates and, further , they were banished to the segregated gallery off the convention floor.

Later moving to Seneca Falls, New York, she and a small group of women discussed their bitterness over this exclusion from the public world. They impulsively decided to call a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, an event that went down in the history of the women’s rights movement. Frederick Douglass also attended.

“Septa Hero”, William Still

Finally, I encountered the story of William Still of Philadelphia. His father had purchased his freedom and his mother Charity had escaped from slavery. William was one of 18 children.  Two of his brothers were left behind in New Jersey.

William Still worked as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and when a committee was formed to aid runaway slaves, he was made chairman. It was in this capacity that he one day came face- to- face with one of his long-lost brothers who had escaped and sought aid at the Anti-Slavery Society.

Still is also known for the fact that he attempted to desegregate the city’s transit system in 1859. (He’s a bonafide Septa hero!!)

This must be the definitive book on the underground railroad and it certainly gave me a thorough education. So glad I picked it up!!


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