Prof. Dr. Damian Pargas, Executive Director

Throughout American history the concept of “freedom” has often been heavily contested, inconsistently defined, and selectively applied to various segments of society.Nowhere were such inconsistencies more glaring and politically charged than in the antebellum period, a time of major transitions in the landscape of slavery and freedom, not only in the USA but throughout North America. For some African Americans, it was an age of emancipation.  The northern US, Canada, and Mexico all abolished slavery between 1777 and 1834, either gradually or immediately. Even in the slaveholding South, a wave of individual manumissions in the revolutionary era bolstered free black populations in countless towns and cities across the region. Yet for most African Americans enslaved in the South, it was an age of what Dale Tomich has called “the second slavery,” a period of expansion and intensification of slavery, following the expansion of cotton across the Appalachians and into the southern interior, and generating a lucrative domestic slave trade that, like a massive torrent, washed almost a million American-born slaves from the Upper South and eastern seaboard to the Deep South.

The more entrenched the institution of bondage became in the American South, the more determined some slaves became to flee captivity altogether, enticed by the prospect of freedom in various geographical settings throughout the continent.

How was slave flight in the nineteenth century characterized? What were slaves’ prime motivations for choosing to flee to various destinations throughout the continent, and what social networks assisted them in their escape attempts? How were refugees’ settlement processes in receiving societies characterized? And how did slave flight impact local, national, and continental discussions regarding the geography of freedom and slavery?

I am currently leading and supervising an NWO Vidi project that seeks answers to these questions, titled “Beacons of Freedom: Slave Refugees in North America, 1800-1860”. It transcends current scholarly paradigms by providing a comparative and continental perspective on slave refugee migration, and by distinguishing between different “spaces of freedom” for runaway slaves. My team is finding that enslaved people fled to sites of:

  1. formal freedom (i.e., places where slavery was abolished and refugees’ freedom was uncontested, such as Canada and Mexico, even though the meanings of freedom in these places were heavily contested);
  2. semi-formal freedom (i.e., places where state abolition laws were curtailed by federal fugitive slave laws, such as the northern US, so fugitives’ claims to freedom were precarious and often contested in the courts); and
  3. informal freedom (i.e., urban areas in the South where runaways tried to blend in with free black populations and pass for free, even procuring false free papers and often changing their names, but had no formal claims to freedom or protection).

The Beacons of Freedom project consists of three PhD projects, divided by geographical region:

  1. Slave refugees in the North & Canada (conducted by Oran Kennedy)
  2. Slave refugees in the South (conducted by Viola Müller)
  3. Slave refugees in Mexico (conducted by Thomas Mareite)

My own role in the project is to write an overarching work on runaway slaves and the various “spaces of freedom” that existed throughout the continent. This will result in a book titled Freedom Seekers: Fugitive Slaves in North America, under contract with Cambridge University Press.