On the Borders of Slavery and Race

Stanley Harrold “On the Borders of Slavery and Race:  Charles T. Torrey and the Underground Railroad” Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 20, Number 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 273-292.

In “On the Borders of Slavery and Race,” Stanley Harrold explores the contributions made by white abolitionists in the Underground Railroad movement. Specifically, he examines the involvement of Charles T. Torrey and the circumstances that led him to become interested in helping the slave communities of the south, including those in Maryland. In addition, the author addresses some of the discrepancies that have existed among historians “concerning the involvement of white abolitionists…the extension of their activities in the South, and the relationship of the antislavery movement to the sectional conflict” (p. 275). He shows that Torrey’s participation in abolition contributed to “his arrest on charges of helping slaves escape, his imprisonment in the Maryland Penitentiary, and his death there in 1846” (p. 274). He suggests that the Underground Railroad movement benefited significantly from the participation of white abolitionists such as Charles T. Torrey who despite the many issues they faced at the time, they were able to break-down racial barriers and promote interracial organizations.

In addition to analyzing the involvement of Charles T. Torrey, the author also aims to dispel the notion that this movement needs to be examined from a compartmentalized perspective. That is, he suggests that despite the myriad of articles proposing otherwise, there is enough evidence to suggest that both African Americans and whites worked together for abolition of slavery. In order to validate this claim the author focuses on relationship between Torrey and Thomas Smallwood. Thomas Smallwood was an African American man who was born into slavery in Prince George’s County and later emancipated. Soon after, he committed to helping other African Americans achieve freedom. He was also a prominent member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church of Washington. The two men met near Washington D.C. and “created what Smallwood called ‘our new underground railroad’” (p. 283). The relationship between the two suggests that both men shared many similarities and qualities. In fact, as the author suggests, these similarities are what turned the movement into a biracial effort. The article seems to suggest that there is significant evidence to propose that white abolitionists did more than just harbor those who were fleeing slavery. With that in mind, it would be helpful to determine how many people and to what extent Charles T. Torrey helped in the state of Maryland.

Adapted from Critical Summaries of Existing Literature by Yamid Macias

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