From Sun Aug 12 09:08:35 2001
From: Art McGee <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] BOOK: Runaway Slaves
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Date: Sat, 11 Aug 2001 20:24:53 -0400 (EDT)

Review of John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation

By Samantha Manchester Earley, African Studies Quarterly, Vol.4 issue 3, Fall 2000

Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation.
John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. 455. Cloth: $35.00.

Runaway Slaves addresses the still widely held belief that, in the slave system of the United States of America, slaves were generally content, that racial violence on the plantation was an aberration, and that the few who ran away struck out for the Promised Land in the North or Canada (p. xv). Throughout Runaway Slaves, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger stress that the majority of slaves in the United States fought the system and their white oppressors. Moreover, they lived under constant threats of physical and mental violence and were conditioned to respond in kind. Furthermore, slaves ran away in great numbers, and when they ran they did not necessarily go North. In fact, they more often ran to places where they had relatives or loved ones.

The book is well-organized, with chapters describing everyday acts of rebellion, reasons for running, how they tried to keep their families together, their reasons for becoming violent, how they planned escapes, and where and how they hid. Moreover, the book details how the slaveholders hunted fugitives, what happened to the slaves once they were taken back into bondage, and how the slaveholders attempted to manage their human property. The authors attach seven appendices, including advertisements, petitions, tables of locations and destinations of runaways, and examples of correspondence. Almost one hundred pages of notes detail the sources.

Franklin and Schweninger undertake a detailed analysis of hundreds of newspaper articles, advertisements, and court documents in order to establish many of the facts of life in slavery, as well as a foundation for the tenor of relations between blacks and whites. Their analysis of these documents addresses a gap in contemporary scholarship on slavery, which has focused on slave narratives, diaries of slave planters, and plantation records. In fact, the authors assert that newspapers and court documents have their own unique strengths as primary source materials. For instance, masters advertising for the return of their runaways had little reason to misinform their readers and every reason to be as precise as possible (p. 295). They gave graphic physical descriptions of the runaways and their known connections around the country. Moreover, court petitioners suing for release from slavery realized that it behooved them to be as forthright and candid as possible (p. 295). These petitioners often had nothing to hide, because all the community knew their circumstances; furthermore, presenting the facts in graphic detail could possibly sway the verdict their way. Therefore, contemporary white notions of slaves and black resistance to slavery are well-represented in these documents.

The bits and pieces of stories that the authors put together from the fragments of newspaper clippings and runaway notices are remarkable. This technique, however, can be a bit confusing when several different notices or runaways are mentioned in the same paragraph. Moreover, the reader may become intrigued by the ways a particular slave rebelled and wish to know more about that particular individual. The downfall of writing from advertisements is that, in most cases, one never does know what happened to the person in question. This narrative angst, of course, only replicates to a small degree the terrible anxiety that the friends and family of the slave must have felt. For as Franklin and Schweninger make clear, slave families often did not know where their loved ones had fled. They also understood very well the penalties inflicted upon captured runaways. For example, slave owners often contracted professional slave catchers with dogs to chase their runaways. One plantation owner admitted to using such methods: the catcher's dogs treed the man and pulled him out of the tree. The owner then had the dogs bite him badly, think[ing] he will stay home a while (p. 161).

In addition to detailing the reasons and the methods of those who ran, the authors seek to analyze the motives and responses of the slaveholding class and other whites (p. xv). To this end, they have detailed the owners' announcements about runaways, their rewards for apprehending the slaves, and their discussions of the tribulations that pursuing the runaways caused. The results of this analysis are telling. Masters were often incensed that trusted slaves ran away without any unjust or injurious treatment and they would pursue those slaves until the time and expense became overwhelming (p. 169).

Franklin and Schweninger have done a thorough job reading runaway advertisements and court cases against the grain to determine the possible reasons why the slaves ran away and committed other crimes. For instance, they claim that fear, anxiety, retaliation, frustration, anger, and hatred propelled slaves toward violence (p. 79). When slaves ran, they often took more of their owner's property than just themselves. The owners described every item stolen. One runaway called Jerry took with him a ‘considerable quantity’ of clothes, ‘an aged sorrel horse,’ a pistol, and eighty dollars in cash (p. 145). A slave named Sam left wearing a green frock coat with a black velvet collar, blue pants, a high-crown black hat; he carried with him a black leather trunk containing a variety of other clothing, including a reddish frock coat with a velvet collar, a green cloth coat and a white hat (p. 80). What this detailing makes clear is the slaves' understanding that anything preventing them from acquiring material and intellectual resources was the basis of their continued enslavement. When they absconded, they took some of the materials that could help make them free.

Runaway Slaves does well in discounting the popular myth that slaves were docile and cowered in the face of white oppression. In fact, as Franklin and Schweninger show, a great deal of violence was inflicted upon slaves, and the slaves reacted in kind. The authors establish that most of the violence was spontaneous, and most of it was directed against whites-owners, members of the owner's family, overseers (p. 77). In nearly every Southern state, slaves were indicted for killing their owners or members of their owner's family. For this reason in particular, Runaway Slaves is a valuable resource for undergraduate courses dealing with slavery, as undergraduates often come to this subject with romantic, Gone with the Wind notions of the peculiar institution. Moreover, the authors cite all the primary sources they use, making this book a valuable resource for those interested in archival research on slave narratives, slave codes, and African American history.

Samantha Manchester Earley
Department of English
Indiana University Southeast