Escape On The Pearl: The Heroic Bid For Freedom On The Underground Railroad, by Mary Kay Ricks
This book, like many books, suffers from having a title that is not quite accurate. A more accurate title, and one that reflects its contents, would have been “Attempted Escape On The Pearl,” as that would have been the proper setup to the discussion of the aftermath of what was a [spoiler alert] unsuccessful attempt to free a large number of fugitive slaves on a ship that was foiled in large part because of the weather and the inability of the Pearl to handle sailing on the ocean, which limited its options to transportation in the bay itself, where it was cornered by a group of concerned citizens of Washington DC. Most of this book, perhaps understandably, focuses on aspects of the fallout and repercussions of the unsuccessful, if heroic, bid for freedom that more than seventy fugitive slaves made, and it makes for reading that is gripping and worthwhile on several levels. Again, if one has read a great deal about the history of the antislavery movement in the United States one may already be familiar with the Pearl and its captain, who is one of the more enigmatic figures of the Underground Railroad, but the casual reader may think that the escape is going to be a success and is going to be in for an unpleasant surprise when that does not turn out to be the case and when some of the people involved face some pretty unpleasant fates.
This book is, including its appendices, a bit more than 350 long and is divided into thirteen chapters. The book begins with an introduction, and then with a discussion of two young girls (who would later become famous) who joined members of their own family and other families in an audacious bid for freedom in the hold of a ship run by an antislavery captain of a slightly mercenary bent (1). After that is a discussion of Washington DC’s underground railroad (2) as well as of slavery in the area of the District of Columbia during the time (3). There is a chapter about the struggles in Congress over matters of slavery (4) as well as the fate of the Edmonsons, the family those two girls belonged to (5). After the failure of the Pearl there is a look at the trials and tribulations that resulted (6), as well as more legal maneuvers and the purchase of the girls from slavery and their travel to the North (7). This leads to a discussion of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the protests that followed (8). Mary and Ellen (the two girls) then go to Oberlin to study while efforts continued to free Drayton and Sayres (9). After this Emily comes home and Samuel Edmonson escapes again (10). The last three chapters continue after a bit of time with the look at the Dred Scott decision and the rise of Lincoln (11), the arrival of freedom for the District of Columbia during the Civil War (12), and the return of Emily and Samuel to DC while John is found in Louisiana (13). The book ends with an epilogue, acknowledgements, a look at the Edmonson farm (i) and the fugitives of the Pearl (ii), as well as notes and an index.
One of the elements where this book particularly succeeds is the way that the author manages to discuss a wide variety of the elements of slavery in Antebellum America through the discussion of a single effort by fugitive slaves to escape. One sees the ubiquity of slaves within Washington DC life as a key element of the working class of the city, one sees the interconnection between local slavery and national politics because of the place of the city as the nation’s capital. One sees the tensions between idealism and hard-headed practical matters among antislavery activists that sometimes made the antislavery movement a deeply divided one. And the author even manages to use this incident as an entrance into some of the more unsavory aspects of antebellum slavery such as the internal slave trade whereby troublesome slaves from the Upper South (including the District of Columbia) were shipped to the Deep South, and the cruel fate of forced prostitution that was faced by two of the light-skinned slaves who were part of the escaped party, and which led to a fundraising effort to ransom their freedom to avoid this fate being suffered by two black Methodist girls of decent moral character who later became educated in the North after being redeemed. Thus what may seem to be a rather singular incident becomes a means by which to talk about the much larger context of slavery in the United States, and that is well done.