To kick off the celebration of Black History Month, the History Department hosted a lecture at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 3 in Bartley Hall. The lecture, also co-sponsored by Africana Studies, was titled “The Reverse Underground Railroad: Kidnapping and Human Trafficking in Early America” and involved a discussion of Richard Bell, Ph.D.’s book, “Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home.”
Judith Giesberg, Ph.D., a Professor of History at the University, introduced Bell to the approximated 30 students in attendance. Bell is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland and has published three books. He received his B.A. from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Bell is an award-winning teacher and his research has been supported by several institutions, such as the Library of Congress.
Described as “impeccably researched and breathlessly paced” and earning rave reviews from faculty and students alike, Bell’s book takes place in the streets of Philadelphia in 1826. Despite being known as the “city of brotherly love”, Philadelphia was the most dangerous place to be a free black person during this time. It was the closest free city to the south, making it the border between the free and (formerly) slave states. Even after slavery was abolished, southern states were still looking to satisfy a need for labor, so they turned to kidnapping free black people from the North and transporting them through the Reverse Underground Railroad.
“It’s hard to find heroes in American history, but the Underground Railroad is full of heroes,” Bell says.
While this statement holds true, the Reverse Underground Railroad, unlike its namesake, was in the business of abducting and kidnapping free black people and selling them back into slavery. These people were often forced to march and trudge down to the south. The targets of this grim fate were often young, illiterate children who were never heard from again. It is estimated that within the first 50 years of this period in history, thousands of free black people were abducted.
Bell’s book follows the true story of Cornelius Sinclair and four other boys who were taken by the most ruthless gang of kidnappers during this time. They were smuggled onto a boat in Philadelphia and forced to march thousands of miles to be sold into slavery in the south, “swiftly and shamelessly,” as Bell puts it. For the rest of their lives, these boys, who were born free, would be reduced to the property of others. However, miraculously, four out of the five boys would return to Philadelphia after what Bell calls “a soul-destroying journey,” which would include marching in chains, escape attempts, and murders.
Although children were the primary targets of this system of human trafficking, there is one instance where these “professional people snatchers” kidnapped a free, literate black man in his mid-30s in New York City. The story of Solomon Northup and his escape from slavery is immortalized in both his memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave,” as well as the movie adaptation produced in 2013.
Near the conclusion of the discussion, Bell addressed why this issue of human trafficking was worth researching. He explained that this issue caused many families to be torn apart unfairly, since these people were born free. The problems relating to the Reverse Underground Railroad helped forge the rest of the antislavery movement in America and allowed northern states to pass personal liberty laws preventing these abductions.