RUNAWAY SLAVES by John Hope Franklin

RUNAWAY SLAVES

Rebels on the Plantation, 1790--1860

KIRKUS REVIEW

In a searing indictment of plantation life in the antebellum South, noted historian Franklin (professor emeritus at Duke Univ.) and Schweninger (History/Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro) use primary documents such as court records, newspapers, and letters of contemporaries, including slaves themselves, to show that slaves often resisted their condition by means direct and indirect, and frequently to the point of running away. Historians traditionally have depicted antebellum plantation slaves as docile and resigned to their fate. Indeed, early studies of American slavery, such as Ulrich Phillips’s Life and Labor in the Old South (1929), romanticized plantation slavery and even portrayed slaves as generally contented with their lot. While modern scholarship has exposed the harsh aspects of plantation life, the image of the slave as passive victim has survived. The reality was vastly different, say the authors; quiet resistance and open rebellion were common occurrences on the typical Southern plantation, and the average plantation owner had several runaways every year. In a meticulous survey of primary sources, the authors examine multiple aspects of slave resistance, including passive resistance and outright racial violence on the plantation; the motives of runaways, which included, commonly, the desire to be reunited with family members; and typical opportunities for running away, such as the death of the master. Runaways faced tremendous obstacles, the authors point out: they had to travel hundreds of miles to freedom amid a well-organized system of slave catching and retrieval that was so efficient and vicious that it even enslaved free blacks, and runaways faced drastic penalties, including physical punishment and even death, if caught. Most were caught, but thousands continued to seek their freedom, and many made it, whether alone, through the solicitude of free blacks or by the Underground Railroad of clandestine assistance, to the promised land of the free states or Canada. A well-crafted and carefully researched account that opens a new window onto a dark and painful chapter in American history.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-19-508449-7
Page count: 428pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1999




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