Slavery’s Hidden History: An interview with historian Eric Foner

Slavery’s Hidden History: An interview with historian Eric Foner

American Libraries

George M. Eberhart, Editor

Eric Foner—Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, author of Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (W. W. Norton, 2015), Columbia University professor, and author of more than 20 history texts—spoke to American Libraries about his latest book and his plans for the future. Foner’s specialty is the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and he has been teaching a popular course on that topic to Columbia undergraduates for more than 30 years. His book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (Harper and Row, 1988) is recognized as a definitive work on federal attempts to rebuild the South and establish equal constitutional rights for African-Americans. Foner is giving a talk about the Underground Railroad at the Chicago Humanities Festival on October 31.

Your most recent book is a fascinating look at the Underground Railroad and antislavery networks of pre–Civil War New York City. Explain how you came across the document that shed new light on these events.

ERIC FONER: It was totally accidental. Madeline Lewis, an undergraduate history major at Columbia who also worked for my family as a dog walker, was writing a senior thesis a few years ago about Sydney Howard Gay, an abolitionist editor here in New York City. Gay’s papers, about 80 boxes of them, are in the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library. One day she said to me, “You know, Professor Foner, in one box there is a document having to do with fugitive slaves. I’m not quite sure what it is. It’s not relevant for my work, but you might find it interesting.” So I filed that in the back of my mind, and one day I was in the library and decided to look at that document. It was actually two little notebooks, dating from 1855 and 1856 when Gay was editing the National Anti-Slavery Standard and actively assisting escaped slaves. He kept a record of more than 200 men, women, and children who passed through New York City, and he called it the “Record of Fugitives.”…

Read the entire interview here.

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