“American history,” James Baldwin observed in a 1963 lecture to schoolteachers, “is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” Though we live in a golden age of provocative history writing, that remains true today. What’s also true is that the beauty and the terror can be framed, by sufficiently gifted chroniclers, in a single historical tableau.

Consider the astonishing acts of heroism performed during the centuries-spanning enslavement of millions of Black Americans, the most staggering crime in American history. The story of the underground railroad, the secret network of activists that helped spirit refugees from Southern bondage to Northern freedom, has been revisited and reworked in numerous books in recent years, from scholarly studies by Eric Foner and R.J.M. Blackett to magical-realist novels by Colson Whitehead and Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Flee North,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter Scott Shane, is a worthy companion to those volumes.

Combining the best elements of rigorously researched history and thrilling narrative, “Flee North” details the unlikely partnership between Thomas Smallwood, a bold, brave Black man born into slavery in Maryland, and Charles Torrey, a devout white New Englander who risked his life to help others escape from bondage. While most enslaved people fled as individuals, Smallwood and Torrey organized mass escapes of a dozen or more people at a time. According to one estimate that Shane credits, they aided the self-liberation of some 400 people, mostly over a few months in 1842 and 1843.

Neither man is widely known today. That is especially unjust with regard to Smallwood, who named the burgeoning network the underground railroad – inspired by a frustrated Washington slave-catcher who was mystified when enslaved people in the capital kept disappearing, as if borne away, he fumed, on some invisible subterranean conveyance.

Smallwood’s master was a Methodist minister obligated by the terms of an inheritance to buy the young boy and his sister. Once Smallwood bought his freedom at age 30, he devoted himself to securing liberty for others. Some abolitionists argued that those who had escaped should remain in the Northern states and fight to abolish the institution; Smallwood disagreed, insisting they keep going until they reached Canada, beyond the clutches of American fugitive slave laws. Once his clandestine activities were detected, and a sizable bounty was placed on his head, he fled by the same route along which he had so often guided others to freedom.

Smallwood and Torrey were extraordinarily daring, not only in organizing the escapes but also in publicizing them afterward. In searing columns for an Albany newspaper, written under a pseudonym and edited by Torrey, Smallwood mocked and insulted the enslavers of Washington – “that mock metropolis of freedom” – and called out by name those whose enslaved people he had helped liberate. He even mailed them copies of his columns.


“Flee North,” a gripping story told at a brisk pace in the no-fuss prose of a practiced reporter, is a model of the advantages that journalists can bring to the writing of history. Shane is best known for his coverage of the war on terrorism and Russia’s interference in American politics. Yet what might seem an odd pairing between author and subject makes sense when one considers the skills required to uncover long-hidden connections among those involved in the fugitives network. Weighing tax and court records against private and public accounts, Shane knows that the real story is often found where the evidence is most scant. One imagines him standing, notepad in hand, on the dusty streets of antebellum Washington, a milieu vividly re-created in the text, stopping passersby to ask if they know anything about the mysterious disappearance of servants enslaved to some of the most powerful men in the land.

Only occasionally in this otherwise excellent book do some of Shane’s more editorializing comments grate. He has little patience for the self-aggrandizement of white abolitionists, but he might have considered what the historian E.P. Thompson called the “enormous condescension of posterity.” Shane interprets Smallwood’s praise for the undoubtedly pompous and impractical Torrey – “that most excellent and whole-souled Abolitionist,” Smallwood wrote – as showing the low expectations Black people had even of sympathetic whites, rather than as recognition of the New Englander’s courage while facing deadly opposition. Smallwood recalled that he began helping enslaved people escape “by the assistance of the Lord and Mr. Torrey.” It seems churlish to second-guess him.

Still, “Flee North” is the kind of story we sorely need at a time when there is no shortage of opportunities for inspiring acts of heroism. Shane’s account is a reminder of the obstacles faced by an earlier era’s “bright stars of benevolence,” as Smallwood called the activists of the underground railroad, and of the urgent need to nurture and honor those of our own time.

Richard Kreitner is writing a book about American Jews, slavery and the Civil War.

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