Former slave works to reunite family
TO FREE A FAMILY: The Journey of Mary Walker. By Sydney Nathans. Harvard University Press. 346 pages. $29.95.
Mary Walker, an enslaved 30-year-old woman from Raleigh, made her escape from bondage in 1848 while accompanying slaveholder Duncan Cameron on a medical visit to Philadelphia.
Walker stood a reasonable chance of evading attempts by Cameron to re-enslave her. Her fair skin and nearly blue eyes drew less suspicion that she was a runaway. A network of anti-slavery activists also offered their protection and assistance.
Yet Walker was a reluctant fugitive. She left behind three children and a mother, still enslaved in North Carolina. Walker's struggle for freedom was not just for herself. It was for her entire family.
In piecing together Walker's story, historian Sydney Nathans has accomplished a remarkable feat. With a penetrating eye, he researched letters, diaries, public records and more to uncover the wrenching details of Walker's efforts to reunite her family. Where sources did not reveal the entire story, Nathans is careful to explore multiple possibilities and weigh them. The historian's craft is readily apparent throughout each chapter.
"To Free a Family" will enthrall the casual reader as well as the scholar. Detailed maps and historic photographs immerse the reader in Walker's world. The tumultuous events of the Civil War era do not just serve as a contextual backdrop; one can see direct effects on ordinary people.
Almost two decades after escaping, Walker brought her family back together. Her compelling journey reinforces that slavery, in all its brutality, did not destroy the African-American family.