Journalist DeRamus (Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad, 2005) depicts the various canny and courageous ways in which slaves outfoxed their circumstances to gain freedom.
“Much of what we think we know about African-American history is only partly true,” she writes, pointing out that running away or buying freedom were not the only paths slaves took to emancipation. They matched the trickery employed by slave-catchers with their own smart countermeasures. The stories DeRamus retells here often chronicle extraordinary gambles, legal as well as illegal. A good number involve free blacks liberating enslaved partners. One man spirited away his wife from an auction in broad daylight. Another, whose offer to buy his wife was refused, became involved in a court case that resulted in the state of Virginia for the first time recognizing slave marriages as legal in 1846. DeRamus does a wonderful job painting the resolve of the actors and the drama of their situations: “Jane was nine months pregnant when John Brown’s men came to free her,” she writes of one dauntless woman, who fled with the raiders as howling winds battered the snowy Midwestern plains. The author also works in important bites of history, including the Kansas-Missouri War and the dubious freedom offered by California. She follows her protagonists as much as she can into their later lives, to see where their acts led them. Gratifyingly, it was sometimes to great achievement. DeRamus’ documentation is meticulous. Where the sources are scrupulous, she says so; where she has fleshed out the narrative, she does the same, all in the interest of storytelling. She closes with an eye-opening roll call of women who refused long before Rosa Parks to surrender their seats on the bus, the train and the trolley—not to diminish Parks, but to place her on a family tree of defiance.
Chromatic stories of passion and quick wits on the road out of slavery.