Today's Asylum Seekers Carry on the Freedom Struggle of Enslaved AmericansRoundup
tags: slavery, immigration, refugees, migration
Sean Gallagher is an historian of slavery and is currently the David Center for the American Revolution postdoctoral fellow at the American Philosophical Society.
Harriet Tubman, living in Ontario, Canada, for most of 1851 to 1861, told an abolitionist interviewing fugitive enslaved people north of the U.S. border that “we would rather stay in our native land, if we could be as free there as we are here.” She acknowledged that many of the African Americans she led out of the American South to Canada through the Underground Railroad desired to return to one day, “but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave.” The abolitionist Benjamin Drew printed her testimony along with those of other runaways living in Canada in an 1856 book titled “A North-Side View of Slavery: The Refugee.” As he and Tubman understood, the struggle for African American freedom was by necessity a migrant, border-crossing movement for asylum.
From the American Revolution to the Civil War, enslaved African Americans fled the United States for freedom abroad in British Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Over time, African Americans’ search for freedom beyond U.S. borders led to treaties, military proclamations and court decisions that gave shape to the idea of the refugee in international law. At the same time, as historian Harvey Amani Whitfield has shown, acts of escaping to foreign free soil made migration and transnationality integral to early African American conceptions of freedom and community. These refugee politics were as American as the ideals of the Revolution itself precisely because they first took shape during the U.S. War for Independence.
Today’s asylum seekers from Haiti, Guatemala and elsewhere at the U.S.-Mexico border have a political history that connects them to the Underground Railroad out of this nation before the Civil War. Like fugitive bondpeople traveling up through the free northern states to Canada in the 19th century, today’s migrants often form traveling communities and networks for both protection and solidarity. And they frame their migration as a form of politics: using their mobility to access rights of liberty and safety.
From the outset of the American Revolution, enslaved people sought freedom or at least protection behind British lines as Black loyalists. Though Britain agreed in the Treaty of Paris at the end of the war to evacuate the United States without “carrying away any Negroes,” runaways pleaded for resettlement outside the United States. They testified to officers that they feared violent reprisals from their enslavers for having aided the Crown. Their stories trickled up to the British commander in chief, Sir Guy Carleton who agreed to relocate more than 3,000 runaways to Canada because “delivering up the Negroes to their former Masters would be delivering them up some possibly to Execution and others to severe Punishment.” African Americans freed themselves by making the violence of slavery legible as a form of persecution.
After the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, followed by Mexico in 1837, the trickle of cross-border runaways turned into a stream of thousands of African Americans seeking protection within foreign forts, vessels and free communities of color.
By the American Civil War, more than 30,000 people would flee to Canada and perhaps as many as 5,000 took refuge in Mexico.