Applying Migration Studies to the History of Black Fugitivity in the Antebellum Urban South

The Gateway to Freedom International Memorial to the Underground Railroad, Detroit (Flickr)

The historiography of slavery in the Americas largely asserts that Black enslaved people fled from their enslavers to places where they could achieve legal freedom. In her monograph Escape to the City: Fugitive Slaves in the Antebellum Urban South, historian Viola Franziska Müller indicates that more important than legal freedom for some enslaved people was their desire to escape. For some enslaved people in the antebellum South freedom meant, as slavery studies scholar David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hines have argued, “not considering themselves to be bound.”

In Escape to the City, Müller studies Black southerners who fled from slavery and chose, instead of migrating to free soil, to remain in the slaveholding South. The people whom she included in her research chose to live permanently in southern cities such as New Orleans, Baltimore, Charleston, and Richmond, Virginia. Because they remained in the slaveholding South, they never achieved legal freedom. Instead, they hid in plain sight among communities of free urban laborers. Müller argues that despite the dangers of flight, which included flogging and being sent to do hard labor in workhouses if captured, enslaved men and women in the south felt compelled to run to southern cities. As the nineteenth century progressed, legal routes out of slavery closed almost entirely, and in the years before the Civil War, only Delaware, Missouri, and Arkansas allowed enslavers to manumit their enslaved people (19). Because of the increasing impossibility of becoming legally free, many believed that running to southern cities was the only remaining option.

In Escape to the City, Müller problematizes the tendency in the fields of United States History and Slavery Studies to treat freedom as a linear process. She argues that the notion of freedom can never fully capture the struggles of antebellum southerners of African descent. Her monograph invites scholars to turn for a moment away from the question of freedom to instead think about Black fugitivity through the lens of migration studies. She argues that the field of migration studies, which is rarely concerned with the question of freedom, better aligns with the central concerns of fugitivity—being stateless, vulnerable to discretionary policing, and susceptible to coercive labor (3).

Much of the value of this monograph lies in the author’s choice to wade into an area of study that has a limited historiography. Müller asserts that this gap in the historiography is surprising because free Black southerners were aware that some of the people who lived among them were fugitives from slave labor. However, the historiographic gap points to the absence of the voices of Black southern fugitives in the archival records. Despite the silences in the archival record, Müller finds that by turning to newspaper advertisements, plantation management books, diaries, autobiographies, political speeches, travel accounts, church registers, and city directories she can successfully tell a story of the experiences of fugitives in the antebellum urban south. She builds on the work of the late historian Stephanie M.H. Camp to uncover why certain voices fail to emerge in the archives and how the failures of those voices to emerge provides a “starting point for comprehension” (13).

Escape to the City is divided into six readable chapters. The chapters explore topics including why Black fugitivity became increasingly common in the antebellum period, how enslaved people managed to escape to the cities, who received people who successfully escaped, how enslaved Black people and free Black people networked, and what kinds of jobs fugitives performed in Southern cities. As promised, Müller does not center a desire for legal freedom in her study. Still, it seems that the author could more firmly situate her chapters in the scholarship on migration that she argues is essential to helping historians reframe our thinking around Black fugitivity in the antebellum south.

In her fourth chapter about how fugitives created new lives for themselves in the urban south, Müller enters the ongoing scholarly debate about slavery as a form of social death. Her research contradicts the findings of sociologist Orlando Patterson who argued that the loss of identity and isolation during slavery rendered enslaved people powerless. While Müller concedes that Patterson’s ideas might have held true for the first generation of enslaved people who were captured from Africa, she finds that nineteenth-century enslaved people who were born in the United States were part of communities. She asserts that even when enslaved families were separated from each other, they allowed separation from their communities of kin to empower them to become more mobile and to expand the group of people whom they included within their network of kin (81). While Müller’s analysis runs the risk of eliding the terror of family separation, it helpfully reminds the reader that without a sense of solidarity among enslaved, quasi-free, and free Black Southerners, “escaping to the city” would have been even more challenging and risky than it was.

In a section of her fifth chapter, Müller discusses how gender shaped the experience of fugitivity. In part her failure to fully incorporate Black women into her research is accounted for by her statement that fewer women appeared in the official jail records of southern cities. Because they did not appear in records as runaways, she assumed that women gravitated toward Southern cities in smaller numbers because of a lack of professional opportunities (121). However, Müller also finds that Black women could better escape detection because they outnumbered their male counterparts in many cities which allowed them to camouflage themselves but also because women could work in more private spaces as domestic servants or washerwomen (122). Additionally, Müller finds that some Black women did sex work because it generated more income and they could do it on-and-off to navigate difficult financial times (124). Müller’s presentation of Black enslaved women as people who either chose not to run from their enslavers or who somehow found “protection” in cities because of their numbers and their work in domestic spaces overlooks some of the critical findings of the historical research on Black enslaved women in the antebellum South that demonstrates that enslaved (and fugitive) Black women were consistently unprotected whether they labored in domestic or public spaces.

In the final chapter, Müller turns to a discussion of how Southern cities profited from the labor of Black fugitive enslaved people. In the chapter, she builds on the work of historians Aaron Hall and Rashuana Johnson to demonstrate the relationship between slavery and the criminal justice system by the 1840s. It is in this chapter that Müller writes in graphic detail of the violence Black people faced in the antebellum South. She writes unflinchingly of the great risks of fugitivity and how the shifts in the interests of capitalists impacted how much state authorities worked to apprehend runaways. Müller’s final chapter will likely be of much interest to students and historians of unfree labor, abolition, policing, and incarceration alike.

Historians will find that Escape to the City offers useful tools that allow us to apply new frameworks to the study of Black fugitivity and flight in the antebellum South. Educators will find that select chapters from Escape to the City offer tools to teach students the history of unfree labor, slavery, and policing in the antebellum American South. This history can offer a way for students to understand how the current American criminal (in)justice system came to be. Educators can also use Escape to the City to introduce students to some of the critical methods in Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, and Migration Studies, which Müller used adeptly to craft this thought-provoking monograph.

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Jaimie D. Crumley

Jaimie D. Crumley is an Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah and the 2022-2023 Research Fellow at Old North Illuminated in Boston, Massachusetts. She earned her PhD from UCLA, her M.Div. and STM degrees from Yale Divinity School, and her BA from Wellesley College. Her research concerns race, gender, and religion in colonial and antebellum New England. Her dissertation, “Tried as by Fire,” situates eighteenth and nineteenth-century Black Christian women in the Northeastern United States as proto-Black feminist abolitionists who rooted their activism in Biblical theology. Jaimie has received research fellowships from the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars (formerly the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation), the Boston Athenaeum, and the American Congregational Library.