On Oct. 11, the Department of History hosted Columbia professor Eric Foner as its 17th annual Fusco Distinguished Lecture guest. Foner is a renowned author and professor and has served as the president of many historical organizations.
Foner was introduced by UConn history professor Manisha Sinha, who spoke highly of his accomplishments as an historian and the contributions he has made to the community. Manisha Sinha said that Foner has written for multiple newspaper publications and has appeared on popular shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Once Foner took the podium, the audience was instantly engaged. In his latest book “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad,” Foner brings to light the stories of runaway slaves as told by a journalist and member of the Underground Railroad, Sydney Howard Gay.
Gay had extensively recorded the stories of runaway slaves that he assisted through New York City, asking for first-hand accounts of their experiences as slaves. Most historical records of escaped slaves were taken many years after the Civil War had ended, making Gay’s documents invaluable in understanding the lives of escaped slaves.
Gay’s documents had not been too frequently cited by other historians, which gave Foner a new and unique plethora of information. Foner happened upon these documents by pure chance, as an undergraduate student of his had stumbled upon the documents in the Columbia University Archives when writing an unrelated piece of her own.
Eric Foner said that in recent years, the Underground Railroad had regained the interest of historians and the general public. He then gave a brief but informative history of the Underground Railroad.
Foner spoke about the different stops along the Underground Railroad, beginning in southern Pennsylvania and ending in Canada. Other stops included Philadelphia, New York City and the abolitionist “hot bed” of Syracuse.
Foner described the lengths that many slaves had to go attain freedom, citing the case of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who escaped by shipping himself as cargo to abolitionists in Pennsylvania.
Foner said that escaped slaves would have to leave the country in order to be safe from laws like The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which authorized the use of Federal Marshals to track down escaped slaves even in the north.
After the Civil War began, slaves no longer had to leave the country to be free, which soon made the Underground Railroad obsolete.
“One of my professors studied under (Foner) when he was in college and said he was a fantastic lecturer,” said Nick Diverniero, a seventh-semester history and economics major. “I found it really interesting that there were still undiscovered documents being found.”
Lauren Brown is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.