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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.
A page-turning history.
— Pam Kelley
[A] penetrating narrative...[A] captivating book.
— Charles Shea LeMone
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
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
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
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
Posted March 30, 2012
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.
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