There’s a claim, one with quite a lineage in both historical analysis and social science circles, that slavery destroyed African American families. It was compelling evidence against that claim, found in both Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom and Alex Haley’s Roots, that led historian Sydney Nathans to shift his focus years ago from work on nineteenth-century American political leaders to the social history of African Americans. Now comes the completion of a book he started researching in 1988, To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker.
Nathans first learned of Mary Walker in a remarkable letter referenced in Gutman’s book. Sent in 1859 from a University of Pennsylvania professor named J. P. Lesley to Mildred Cameron, one of North Carolina’s wealthiest women, the letter was written on behalf of “Mary Walker, formerly in your family,” a polite way of referring to Cameron’s ownership of Walker. Cameron would have well remembered Walker, for Walker’s family had belonged to the Camerons for generations, and though Walker herself had escaped eleven years prior, her children and mother remained. From Lesley’s letter:
I have been lately touched to the heart with a case of heart breaking distress which you have it entirely in your power I find to cure… I have come to know one Mary Walker formerly in your family, and I have seen how sick at heart she is about her mother and especially her two children… She thinks of nothing but her children, and speaks of nothing else when she speaks of herself at all, which is very seldom. Her mother-heart yearns unspeakably after them… She has saved a considerable sum of money to buy them, can command more from friends, and will sacrifice anything to see them once again and have their young lives renew the freshness of her own weary spirit. It is in this behalf that I address you,—to realize this hope of hers.
Walker had fled from slavery while accompanying the Camerons to Philadelphia, only making the agonizing choice to leave her family behind in North Carolina after her master threatened to banish her to an Alabama plantation. In the years between Walker’s escape and Lesley’s letter to Mildred Cameron, Walker had made a life for herself in the North with the aid of a network of allies and friends. To Free a Family is based on thousands of letters written by these allies, chiefly the Lesley family, and by Walker’s adversaries, the Camerons.
We recently spoke with Nathans for an episode of our podcast (which you can listen to below), and he explained some of the particulars of Walker’s story, as well as some of its broader implications:
The larger story is that we think of antislavery people as single-minded, focused on the attack against slavery and on the emancipation of the slaves—which they were. But at the same time, a good number of them were engaged in trying to help individual slaves recover family members… For a good many of them, they had no idea when emancipation would come about, when antislavery would triumph, and so these personal cases were their ways of dealing with slavery on a human basis, one by one.
With To Free a Family, Nathans has restored a story as indelible as that of Harriet Jacobs, whom Walker knew. The book now serves as a tribute to the memory of a brave woman—and as a reminder of how history is painfully, triumphantly lived.
You can learn more about Mary Walker in stories from Radio Boston and WBUR, or read an excerpt from To Free a Family at the Ms. Magazine blog. Those in the Boston/Cambridge area can also catch Sydney Nathans on February 23rd at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, which is the current occupant of the Brattle Street Blacksmith House once owned by… Mary Walker.