To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker

To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker

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by Sydney Nathans
     
 

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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 son and daughter. 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.See more details below

Overview

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 son and daughter. 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.

Editorial Reviews

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
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

Choice

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

Ira Berlin
A remarkable story by a master storyteller, To Free a Family takes us inside the exhilarating and heartbreaking world of those fugitives whose escape from slavery required a separation from family and friends. Nathans brilliantly narrates a neglected area of the black experience.
Jean Fagan Yellin
To Free a Family puts names and faces on the historic black struggle to reunite families broken by slavery. Well written and beautifully researched, it is a triumph.
William H. Chafe
In this brilliant biography, Nathans offers an incomparable view into the stresses that escaped slaves had to endure, and he provides a wonderful prism through which to view the dilemmas of race and self-fulfillment that accompanied the long march to freedom.
Fergus M. Bordewich
A refreshingly unique portrait not only of a fugitive slave, but also of her complex relations with both her enslavers and with Northern abolitionists who befriended her. Nathans has discovered a remarkable woman, and he has made her as memorable as she was to those who knew and loved her in life.
John Stauffer
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.
Charlotte Observer - Pam Kelley
A page-turning history.
Roanoke Times - Charles Shea LeMone
[A] penetrating narrative...[A] captivating book.
Washington Post - 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.
Post and Courier - Nathan P. Johnson
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.
Choice - C. Warren
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.
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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674063297
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Publication date:
02/20/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
360
File size:
2 MB

Meet the Author

Sydney Nathans is Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University.

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