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Flee North

A Forgotten Hero and the Fight for Freedom in Slavery's Borderland

By Scott Shane
Author: Scott Shane
ISBN: 9781250843210
ON SALE: 09/19/2023

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ISBN: 9781250843210
ISBN: 9781250843227
ISBN: 9781250902252

A riveting account of the extraordinary abolitionist, liberator, and writer Thomas Smallwood, who bought his own freedom, led hundreds out of slavery, and named the underground railroad, from Pulitzer Prize–winning author and journalist Scott Shane. Flee North tells the story for the first time of an American hero all but lost to history.

Born into slavery in Maryland, Thomas Smallwood by the 1840s was free, self-educated, and working as a shoemaker a short walk from the U.S. Capitol. He recruited a young white activist, Charles Torrey, and together they began to organize mass escapes from Washington, Baltimore, and surrounding counties to freedom in the north.

They were racing against an implacable enemy: a lucrative industry run by men like Hope H. Slatter, the region’s leading slave trader, that would tear one million enslaved people from their families and sell them to the brutal cotton and sugar plantations of the Deep South. Men, women, and children in imminent danger of being sold south turned to Smallwood, who risked his own freedom to battle what he called “the most inhuman system that ever blackened the pages of history.” And he documented the escapes in satirical newspaper columns, mocking the slaveholders, the slave traders, and the police who worked for them.

At a time when Americans are rediscovering a tragic and cruel history and struggling anew with the legacy of white supremacy, this book—the first to tell the extraordinary story of Smallwood—will offer complicated heroes, genuine villains, and a powerful narrative set in cities still plagued by shocking racial inequity today.

Scott Shane Credit - Francie Weeks Small-min
Scott Shane was a reporter for 15 years at The New York Times, where he was twice a member of teams that won Pulitzer Prizes, and before that for 21 years at The Baltimore Sun. His two previous books are Dismantling Utopia, a firsthand account of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Objective Troy, the story of an American terrorist killed in a drone strike on orders of President Obama. In 2019-2020 he was a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where he has taught courses on media and on the Russian attack on the 2016 American presidential election.

Praise for Scott Shane

“In his riveting new book, Scott Shane for the first time recounts the extraordinary story of Thomas Smallwood, a former slave who purchased his own freedom and worked as a shoemaker in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. As a free man, Smallwood heroically led hundreds of enslaved people out of bondage, then mocked their former owners in sharply written dispatches in the abolitionist press. It was Smallwood, Shane argues convincingly, who had the distinction of naming the 'underground railroad.' Flee North restores to American history one of the most daring African American abolitionists, author of a long-neglected slave narrative, who not only courageously fought slavery but brilliantly satirized it.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University.

 “Scott Shane has unearthed an extraordinary tale. His fast-paced story is not just inspiring, but also offers the satisfying spectacle of seeing exasperated slaveholders who had lost their human property get publicly taunted by one of the brave pair who helped smuggle these men, women, and children to freedom.”

Adam Hochschild
Award-winning historian and author of American Midnight and many other books.

"This book is a treasure. Weaving together three unforgettable characters, Scott Shane transforms the origins of the underground railroad from a romantic nickname into full-scale human drama of tears, triumph, and laughter."

Taylor Branch
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63

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