Book Review – To Free A Family

Sydney Nathans’s To Free A Family: The Journey of Mary Walker was a birthday gift. What a great reading it turned out to be. As the title indicates, the book is about Mary Walker’s struggle to get her children and her mother out of slavery after she herself had escaped it. It took her 17 years. This is a book that perfectly reveals the connections between biography and history, personal troubles and public issues, and the necessity to place individual trajectories and events in their contextual nexus of structure, history and power. In other words, this book beautifully illustrates, deliberately or not, the sociological imagination.

It is first and foremost a very well written, very engaging, work of history (fully sourced and all that stuff), following the fate of Mary Walker, a slave from a prestigious and wealth family from Raleigh, NC. Mary Walker was take to Philadelphia by her owners as they went there annually so that their invalid daughter receive medical treatment. After an argument with her owner and under the threat of being sent from Raleigh to the deep South, and therefore being separated from her family (owned by the Camerons for generations), Mary decided to escape. As the author notes, such threats of separation were often the main motivation for slaves to escape while leaving relatives behind, because they had at least some hope that they might manage later to get them out of bondage.

Once fugitives, escaped slaves had then to use the underground system to obtain cover and protection until they could reach a safe (i.e. free) state… that is, until the passage of the Federal Fugitive slave law.

So, Mary Walker escaped slavery in 1848, was reunited with her children at  the end of the war in 1865 and died in 1872. The book is her story as recomposed through the massive correspondence and diaries of her (mostly) white friends from Philadelphia and Cambridge (MA) for whom she worked and who helped her in her quest to reunite with her family. Mary Walker herself only left behind three letters. So, we learned about her, throughout the book, through other people’s writings. This renders her a a bit of a passive character in her own story as she never really “speaks”, she is mentioned, spoken about, sometimes cited, but more often than not, a third-person character.

In many ways, Mary Walker was fortunate in that right after her escape, she was helped, taken in, and employed by the Lesley family. Peter and Susan Lesley are central characters in the book because it is mostly through their letters that we get to know Mary. It is their extensive correspondence over the years that gives us a sense of who Mary was and their own perception of her. Mary Walker spent many years caring for Susan Lesley’s mother (who happened to be FDR’s great grandmother). It is the Lesleys who will try to organize a buy out of the remaining Walkers still in bondage and it is them who also attempted to set up an escape for Mary Walker’s children and mother (that failed).

What makes the book important, beyond the extremely moving story of Mary Walker, is to be provided with the historical context and legal background necessary to understand the situation of escaped slaves and the risks they were running even in free states. More than that, what the book successfully shows is that people, abolitionists of various degrees, whites and blacks, did not patiently sit on their hands, waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation. Long before the war, there was a tremendous amount of activism, advocacy and agitation in favor of abolition (and the corresponding, often legislatively successful, backlash from slave states).

Of course, everybody is familiar with the Underground Railroad, but this required a tremendous amount of organization, networking, and resources to pull off successfully. And indeed, success was never guaranteed and getting people out of the South could take years, as it did for Mary’s children. And once out of the South, relocation and integration into Northern society was not easy either. The book describes in great details the challenges related to all these aspects and how much persistence it required from all the parties involved.

The elimination of slavery was not Lincoln’s individual gift to the nation. It was the patient and persistent product of the actions of a large number of people who slowly worked to undermine the institution of slavery, through direct action but also publication, activism, lobbying and networking and raise consciousness on this issue. It is the great strength of this book to seamlessly connect one individual story to this web of social change.

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