As political tension over slavery grew in early 19th-century America, flashpoints were most likely to occur not in the Deep South or North, but in the borderlands, where the enslaved lived within striking distance of freedom. These borderlands were the stomping grounds of a free Black shoemaker named Thomas Smallwood, who ought to be as famous as the remarkable Harriet Tubman. Over just a couple of years in the 1840s, he helped hundreds of enslaved people escape from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. He wrote vivid, funny abolitionist polemics under a pseudonym derived from a Dickens character. And he was the first to write of the escape network as the “underground railroad”—initially as a joke at the expense of the slave-catchers.
New York Times journalist Scott Shane brings Smallwood’s story to much-warranted wider attention in Flee North, an exciting narrative of Smallwood’s partnership with Charles Torrey, a radical white abolitionist. For a short but fruitful time, the two stayed ahead of enemies like the major Baltimore trafficker Hope Slatter.
Shane depicts an unsettled world where no Black person could live without crushing anxiety. The free could be kidnapped and enslaved; the enslaved could be sold south on a whim to hellish cotton-growing labor camps. Police departments were created primarily to suppress Black people. As Shane notes, the usual narrative of the underground railroad tells of tiny groups fleeing on foot, aided by white sympathizers. Smallwood’s and Torrey’s efforts were bolder and more open, involving crowded cities, wagons, boats and actual rail cars, with helpers—and betrayers—as likely to be free Blacks as whites.
It couldn’t last. Smallwood and Torrey had to part ways for safety, but both wrote memoirs. Torrey and his supporters never once mentioned Smallwood; Smallwood never once denigrated Torrey. Torrey was a brave, if reckless, man, but Shane’s hero is Smallwood, whose calculated daring, wit and foresight still inspire.