The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives

  • Edited by Devon Wm , Biography. Carbado and Donald Weise
  • Beacon Press
  • 288 pp.
  • August 24, 2012

The voices of men and women who sought freedom from slavery are heard in this compilation of 12 thought-provoking and myth-dispelling accounts.

Reviewed by Clyde Linsley

As a Southern white boy in the 40s and 50s, I was subjected to a considerable amount of fantasy on the subject of slavery. By far, the greatest flight of fiction concerned the views of black people about their condition prior to emancipation. Adults often told us that slavery “wasn’t that bad” and that the unfortunate illiterates who had been snatched from their homes and transported to America for a life of servitude were not capable of surviving on their own in this new world. So, the argument would run, slavery was in some ways a benefit — for the slaves.

It was a specious argument, of course, as most of us learned during the civil rights revolution of the next decade. I doubt that many Southern whites continue to hold this belief today. If they do, however, this book will go a long way toward disabusing them of the notion.

When I decided to write historical fiction set in the antebellum period, I was fortunate to come across John Hope Franklin’s Runaway Slaves, which offered an excellent overview of slaves’ attempts to gain their freedom. This new book makes an excellent companion; I wish I had acquired it a long time ago.

The editors of The Long Walk to Freedom have compiled a variety of first-person accounts of escapes from servitude. Some of the voices are of men or women who later became famous, or notorious, for their efforts to free their fellows from bondage. Frederick Douglass is here, as is Harriet Jacobs, Henry “Box” Brown, and the man who scared more 19th-century Southerners than any other, Nat Turner. All of these narratives have been published before, but most have not been available for some time.

Some of the stories boggle the imagination even today, but they offer evidence of the extent to which slaves would go to escape from servitude. Henry Brown, for example, acquired the nickname “Box” through the simple stratagem of sealing himself in a box and having himself shipped to Rhode Island: 23 days in a fetal position, much of it spent upside down. It was hardly surprising that, when friends opened the box at the end of his journey, he could barely stand. Harriet Jacobs “escaped” without leaving home. Reluctant to abandon her family, she hid in a crawl space in the attic of her mother’s house with no room to stand and almost no light for seven years. To mislead her master, she had letters smuggled to the north, to be sent back to her relatives, which convinced her owner that she had made her way to freedom.

William and Ellen Craft had an interesting problem. Ellen Craft was light in complexion and could pass for white. William, her husband, was clearly not white. A black man traveling with a white woman would arouse suspicion, so the Crafts resorted to a risky subterfuge: Ellen dressed as a man, and William accompanied “him” as the man’s servant. It was said that Ellen attracted the attentions and admiration of many of the women they met on their journey.

The editors have done a noteworthy job of collecting these stories and presenting them anew. They have added an essay by Brenda E. Stevenson — professor of history at UCLA and the author of what the editors call “one of the most definitive books on slave families” — that puts the stories in a context that contemporary readers can understand. When combined with the first- person accounts in this volume, The Long Road to Freedom will go quite some distance toward dispelling the romanticized aura that has often been spattered all over the antebellum South — and not a moment too soon.

Clyde Linsley is the author of three mystery novels set in the antebellum period. The first, Death of a Mill Girl, was reissued in 2009 through the Author’s Guild Back in Print program.

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