A lucid exploration of a little-known aspect of the history of slavery in the U.S.



Capable study of the escaped slaves who fled from the U.S. to the Republic of Mexico before the Civil War.

Mexican law both “abolished slavery and freed all slaves who set foot on its soil,” making it an attractive if not widely used place of refuge. This proved a threat to bordering and nearby slave states, especially Texas and Louisiana. The former, as history professor Baumgartner writes at length, broke away from Mexico so that newcomers from the South could keep their slaves. While runaways to Mexico enjoyed freedom in the legal sense, notes the author, they had limited choices: They could enlist in the military to defend “a series of outposts that the Mexican government established to defend its northeastern frontier against foreign invaders and ‘barbarous’ Indians,” or they could become day laborers and indentured servants, which “sometimes amounted to slavery in all but name.” By Baumgartner’s estimate, only some 3,000 to 5,000 enslaved people crossed the Mexican border, joining a small remnant population of Blacks, whose ancestors had been brought to Mexico as slaves in the 16th and 17th centuries, before the practice was formally outlawed. While some Mexicans, adhering to political ideals of liberty and property, resisted emancipation, it was finally made law in 1837, just after Texas’ independence. So threatening was this liberty that, Baumgartner writes, it provided the rationale for the U.S. annexation of Texas in 1845, which led to war with Mexico. Similarly, she attributes the earlier conquest of Spanish Florida to the fear that slaves would flee there as well. Baumgartner focuses on these big-picture developments while also telling the stories of some of those who found freedom in Mexico—e.g., a runaway who returned to Texas not because, as a newspaper put it, he “has a poor opinion of the country and laws,” but instead to guide his enslaved brothers across the border.

A lucid exploration of a little-known aspect of the history of slavery in the U.S.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5416-1778-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2020

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A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

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The Harvard historian and Texas native demonstrates what the holiday means to her and to the rest of the nation.

Initially celebrated primarily by Black Texans, Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when a Union general arrived in Galveston to proclaim the end of slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy. If only history were that simple. In her latest, Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and numerous other honors, describes how Whites raged and committed violence against celebratory Blacks as racism in Texas and across the country continued to spread through segregation, Jim Crow laws, and separate-but-equal rationalizations. As Gordon-Reed amply shows in this smooth combination of memoir, essay, and history, such racism is by no means a thing of the past, even as Juneteenth has come to be celebrated by all of Texas and throughout the U.S. The Galveston announcement, notes the author, came well after the Emancipation Proclamation but before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Though Gordon-Reed writes fondly of her native state, especially the strong familial ties and sense of community, she acknowledges her challenges as a woman of color in a state where “the image of Texas has a gender and a race: “Texas is a White man.” The author astutely explores “what that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man.” With all of its diversity and geographic expanse, Texas also has a singular history—as part of Mexico, as its own republic from 1836 to 1846, and as a place that “has connections to people of African descent that go back centuries.” All of this provides context for the uniqueness of this historical moment, which Gordon-Reed explores with her characteristic rigor and insight.

A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-63149-883-1

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.


Custer died for your sins. And so, this book would seem to suggest, did every other native victim of colonialism.

Inducing guilt in non-native readers would seem to be the guiding idea behind Dunbar-Ortiz’s (Emerita, Ethnic Studies/California State Univ., Hayward; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, 2005, etc.) survey, which is hardly a new strategy. Indeed, the author says little that hasn’t been said before, but she packs a trove of ideological assumptions into nearly every page. For one thing, while “Indian” isn’t bad, since “[i]ndigenous individuals and peoples in North America on the whole do not consider ‘Indian’ a slur,” “American” is due to the fact that it’s “blatantly imperialistic.” Just so, indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by a “colonialist settler-state” (the very language broadly applied to Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians today) and then “displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated”—after, that is, having been forced to live in “concentration camps.” Were he around today, Vine Deloria Jr., the always-indignant champion of bias-puncturing in defense of native history, would disavow such tidily packaged, ready-made, reflexive language. As it is, the readers who are likely to come to this book—undergraduates, mostly, in survey courses—probably won’t question Dunbar-Ortiz’s inaccurate assertion that the military phrase “in country” derives from the military phrase “Indian country” or her insistence that all Spanish people in the New World were “gold-obsessed.” Furthermore, most readers won’t likely know that some Ancestral Pueblo (for whom Dunbar-Ortiz uses the long-abandoned term “Anasazi”) sites show evidence of cannibalism and torture, which in turn points to the inconvenient fact that North America wasn’t entirely an Eden before the arrival of Europe.

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0040-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Beacon

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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