Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Milt Diggins's "Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line"

Milt Diggins is an independent scholar, historian, and writer. He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland, and reported the following:
Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line is uniquely framed around the story of a slave catcher and kidnapper, and his community. This framing provides significant insight into the sectional conflict over slave catching and kidnapping around the time of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. McCreary and his community’s side of the story focuses on a system determined to perpetuate slavery, and those who used the system to exploit vulnerable blacks living north and east of the Mason-Dixon Line. The contrasting side of the story is brought forth by an array of opposing forces—those who resisted being victims, those who were dedicated to ending slavery, and those who attempted to at least stop the kidnapping of free blacks and the injustice inflicted on suspected fugitive slaves. Unanticipated allies were the ordinary citizens who suddenly found themselves thrust into the turmoil, and who reacted out of a humanitarian impulse to rescue African American neighbors seized from their midst. This side of the story portrays the struggle for social justice prior to the Civil War.

On page 99, a party of citizens who had arrived in Baltimore from a Pennsylvania community near the Mason-Dixon Line are attempting to rescue Rachel Parker, a seventeen-year-old free black accused of being a fugitive slave, before she disappears into the maw of southern slavery:
… Wiley informed them of Rachel’s whereabouts. Benjamin Furniss, accompanied by the others, headed for the post office to ask his wife’s cousin, a postal clerk named Lewis Newcomer, for advice. Newcomer took them to meet Francis S. Corkran, a Quaker and lumber merchant with a business on a Pratt Street wharf. Miller and Newcomer arrived at his office shortly after eight that morning. Originally from Dorchester County, where he had assisted runaway slaves via the Underground Railroad, Corkran knew Campbell because their businesses were on the wharves. He advised the group to locate Schoolfield and to confirm Rachel’s confinement at Campbell’s.

When they met the slave-trader, Campbell denied that Parker was in his pen. They left, but after inquiring at another slave jail, they went back and confronted Campbell. A heavy fog blanketed Pratt Street that morning, Newcomer recounted, and “the return of our company to Campbell’s slave depot was a little too quick for the slave dealers.” As they approached the pen’s outer wall, they spotted a carriage at the gate whose driver appeared ready to depart. Newcomer rushed up and seized the bridle and reins to prevent the hack from leaving. Corkran peered inside and confirmed that McCreary was sitting with Rachel. Newcomer saw “no evident reason for the kidnapper and victim to be in the hack together except to get her hidden after learning that her friends were on the trail.” When Corkran and Newcomer spoke with him later, Campbell “claimed that after hearing of the claim that she was a free Negro he was planning to have her lodged in jail pending a decision of this question.” Corkran suspected otherwise, that McCreary intended to take Rachel to Alexandria and sell her.

McCreary then turned Rachel Parker over to A. P. Shutt, clerk at the city jail. Unless she could prove otherwise, she was Eliza Crocus, a runaway, presumably the chattel of Luther A. Schoolfield, Baltimore lottery dealer and exchange broker. After her transfer to the city jail, Rachel met Schoolfield, when “he came to her very angry, that the affair had taken such a turn, and was out of his control.” Around eleven o’clock that morning at the jail, Corkran finally had…
Without the preceding pages, the reader turning to this page is unaware of the danger in this situation. The Pennsylvanians have entered a hostile city a few months after Edward Gorsuch, a Baltimore County slaveholder, was slain when attempting to legally recover his slaves in Christiana, Pennsylvania. The rescuers had arrived in Baltimore a few weeks after one of the supposed leaders of the resistance was acquitted by a Philadelphia jury. Joseph Miller, Rachel’s employer, obtained a warrant charging McCreary with kidnapping. Miller disappeared later that day. The next day his body is found hanging from a tree outside Baltimore. Historians concluded that Miller’s death was revenge for the death of Gorsuch. But the aftermath of Christiana and its treason trial and the story of McCreary intertwine more significantly than historians have realized. As for the story of how Rachel Parker’s community responded, its telling is long overdue, for the community’s response is one of American History’s greatest displays of humanity in the face of hostility.
Visit Milt Diggins's website.

--Marshal Zeringue