To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker

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What was it like for a mother to flee slavery, leaving her children behind? To Free a Family tells the remarkable story of Mary Walker, who in August 1848 fled her owner for refuge in the North and spent the next seventeen years trying to recover her family. Her freedom, like that of thousands who escaped from bondage, came at a great price—remorse at parting without a word, fear for her family’s fate.

This story is anchored in two extraordinary collections of letters and diaries, that of her former North Carolina slaveholders and that of the northern family—Susan and Peter Lesley—who protected and employed her. Sydney Nathans’ sensitive and penetrating narrative reveals Mary Walker’s remarkable persistence as well as the sustained collaboration of black and white abolitionists who assisted her. Mary Walker and the Lesleys ventured half a dozen attempts at liberation, from ransom to ruse to rescue, until the end of the Civil War reunited Mary Walker with her son and daughter.

Unlike her more famous counterparts—Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Sojourner Truth—who wrote their own narratives and whose public defiance made them heroines, Mary Walker’s efforts were protracted, wrenching, and private. Her odyssey was more representative of women refugees from bondage who labored secretly and behind the scenes to reclaim their families from the South. In recreating Mary Walker’s journey, To Free a Family gives voice to their hidden epic of emancipation and to an untold story of the Civil War era.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“My feelings have been greatly moved by Peter’s having a Fugitive Slave woman sent to his care, & one of the most interesting people I ever saw,” Susan Lesley confided to a friend in 1850. In this rigorously scholarly but totally absorbing narrative, Nathans unfolds a history as spellbinding as a novel, chockfull of fascinating people engaged in a venture both risky and affecting. When the fugitive slave Mary Walker finds refuge with the Lesleys in Pennsylvania, their lives, their families, and their circle of friends become deeply involved in the general cause and the specific mission—to secure the freedom of Walker’s mother and her children. Nathans’s account is full of twists and turns, as efforts to free the family are thwarted and Mary’s son makes his own escape. The intimacy achieved through the use of letters between friends and family is remarkable; here is history lived in an ordinary household. The center, however, is held by Mary Walker’s crusade, accompanied as it is by the Lesleys’ own evolution; Susan finds “her work in the world,” and Peter moves from antislavery to abolition. Nathans has transformed the paraphernalia of academia (ploughing through archives, thorough documentation, guarded speculation) into a book that will entrance the general reader, inform the scholar, and engage both. (Feb.)
Charlotte Observer

A page-turning history.
— Pam Kelley

Roanoke Times

[A] penetrating narrative...[A] captivating book.
— Charles Shea LeMone

Wall Street Journal

With few exceptions, we know little about the day-to-day lives of female runaways, their families and their relationships with Northern whites. Sydney Nathans's To Free a Family is a minor masterpiece that goes a long way toward filling this gap. [It is] deeply researched and elegantly written...Nathans is brilliant at reconstructing Mary Walker's life and her relationship with Peter and Susan Lesley...Nathans creates a vibrant and subtle portrait of the Lesleys, enabling readers to decide for themselves how trusting Mary Walker's relationship with them became. The result is a remarkable story of an extended biracial family that embarked on a 15-year effort to reunite Walker with her surviving children.
— John Stauffer

Washington Post

Like so many other slave stories, Walker's is mostly shrouded in mystery, but Sydney Nathans has found enough reliable documentation to render it plausible and pertinent...Nathans is a careful researcher and lucid writer.
— Jonathan Yardley

Post and Courier

In piecing together Walker's story, historian Sydney Nathans has accomplished a remarkable feat. With a penetrating eye, he researched letters, diaries, public records and more to uncover the wrenching details of Walker's efforts to reunite her family. Where sources did not reveal the entire story, Nathans is careful to explore multiple possibilities and weigh them. The historian's craft is readily apparent throughout each chapter. To Free a Family will enthrall the casual reader as well as the scholar. Detailed maps and historic photographs immerse the reader in Walker's world. The tumultuous events of the Civil War era do not just serve as a contextual backdrop; one can see direct effects on ordinary people. Almost two decades after escaping, Walker brought her family back together. Her compelling journey reinforces that slavery, in all its brutality, did not destroy the African-American family.
— Nathan P. Johnson


Nathans provides a compelling account of one mixed-race slave woman and her quest for freedom, as well as her long struggle to reunite her family in the North...Nathan's effort to reconstruct long-overlooked historical events through the close readings of correspondence and public records is commendable and comprises an educational, informative contribution to the U.S. narrative.
— C. Warren

Library Journal
Prior to the Civil War, thousands of African Americans escaped from slavery, but because few recorded their experiences little is known about their efforts to forge new lives in freedom. Mary Walker, the focus of this study, was a light-skinned fugitive who escaped from a North Carolina planter couple when she accompanied them to Philadelphia in 1848. Her history, though unique in many ways, is illustrative of the hardships and challenges such migrants faced and the support they sometimes received from abolitionist networks. Her efforts to preserve her freedom, gain economic independence, and locate and purchase the freedom of her children still held as slaves is pieced together here by Nathans (history, emeritus, Duke Univ.; Quest for Progress: The Way We Lived in North Carolina, 1870–1920) from the papers of Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders. VERDICT The result is an engrossing and readable study, thoroughly researched and well documented, that fills a significant gap in the history of the period. It is recommended for all readers seriously interested in the experience of fugitive slaves in antebellum America.—Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib.
Jonathan Yardley
Like so many other slave stories, Walker's is mostly shrouded in mystery, but Sydney Nathans has found enough reliable documentation to render it plausible and pertinent…Nathans is a careful researcher and lucid writer…
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674062122
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 2/6/2012
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Sydney Nathans is Professor Emeritus of History, Duke University.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: A Secret Striving 1

1 Reluctant Runaway 9

2 Sanctuary 31

3 "In the Midst of Friends" 52

4 "Never Reject the Claims of the Fugitive" 78

5 The Rescue Plot 90

6 "A Spirit Like a Dove" 117

7 A Season of Silence 134

8 "A Case of Heart Breaking Distress" 151

9 If They Die for Their Freedom, Amen 166

10 "The Welfare of Her Race" 191

11 "To Part No More" 217

Epilogue: "Their Works Do Follow Them" 253

Notes 263

Acknowledgments 309

Index 317

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 30, 2012

    Highly recommend

    To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker is a spellbinding true story of two families, one anchored by a Northern abolitionist husband and wife and the other by a fugitive slave who had left her children behind in North Caroline.

    More than just a good read, this book reminds us of our real or hoped-for heroic ancestors. Indeed, in Peter and Susan Lesley, white New Englanders, we see remarkable courage and generosity in their support of Mary Walker, the runaway slave. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who hopes that my forebears showed some measure of the same courage and generosity in those pre-Civil War days and that in similar circumstances I myself would do the same.

    And in Mary Walker we see steadfastness that is often tried and bravery in the face of even physical danger, both as she lived her own life in the North but as she carefully and patiently plotted to free her children, who remained in slavery.

    Sydney Nathans is a wonderful writer. This is a superbly written, remarkably well-researched book; I found it hard to put down.
    I loved To Free a Family.
    Joanne Arnold

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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