Sunday, March 27, 2016

The African American Experience in 1851

Two new books set in 1851 address the African American experience. Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan offers readers insight into the dangerous journey North made by escaped slaves; The Parker Sisters: A Border Kidnapping by Lucy Maddox explores how that safety was compromised by the Fugitive Slave Act.

The story of a runaway slave's grueling journey, Chasing the North Star is by Robert Morgan, the author of Gap Creek. Teenage Jonah is pampered and protected by his owner's wife and secretly allowed to learn to read and write. When his master discovers Jonah with a book he assumes it is stolen. Punishment is dealt and feeling the injustice of his position Jonah determines to run away. He is an innocent in the ways of the greater world. He meets Angel at a Jubilee, a 'fat girl' who serves as her master's mistress. Angela decides to follow Jonah. She knows he needs her, not only for her people savvy but also as a link to his people and his past. The road from North Carolina to freedom in Ithaca, NY is rife with danger and deprivation.

Inspired by Morgan family oral history, the novel is well drawn and the characters memorable. There is of course violence. Although Jonah and Angel were both house slaves and better provided for than field hands they suffered indignities and cruelty. Jonah was whipped unjustly and Angel fattened up to be her master's sex slave. They also suffer psychological violence and natural catastrophe. Everyone they met on their journey know they are escaped slaves, and that puts Jonah and Angel in their power.

Morgan is a good writer and readers will be swept into the book by both his characters and the story line.

The Parker Sisters: A Border Kidnapping by Lucy Maddox is a nonfiction exploration of the 1851 kidnapping of two free black sisters from Chester County, PA, which is just above the Pennsylvania-Maryland line. Quakers had settled the area before William Penn. Quakers as a group were not active abolitionists, and those who were had to work under cover. Slavery was illegal in Pennsylvania but residents obeyed the law concerning the Fugitive Slave Act  which made it mandatory to return escaped 'property' to their Southern owners. Abolitionists were detested as lawbreakers. Pennsylvanians also were incensed by the kidnapping of freemen to be sold as slaves in the South, another breaking of the law.

The life of a free person of color in rural Pennsylvania was one of isolation, working for European descent farmers for little pay.

Elizabeth Parker was kidnapped and sold to a New Orleans woman. She was sent on the streets to sell flowers and candy, slept on a feather bed, and was surrounded by others of her color. She was not unhappy in spite of her loss of freedom. When she was arrested for breaking the 8 pm curfew she played her trump card and confessed she was a free woman kidnapped into slavery. Her sister Rachel Parker was also kidnapped and her employer and other Chester County farmers followed to bring her back; the farmer she worked for was later found dead. After several exhumations it was determined that he was murdered.

Their kidnapper claimed they were the Crocus sisters who had escaped from their owners. The girls remained in prison for a year awaiting the trials that would settle their identity.. African Americans were legally bared from testifying in court for others of their color. Their identity had to be established by members of their home community, against the word of those who benefited from her sale.

Maddox uses trial records and primary sources to reconstruct the kidnapping of the Parker sisters. Their story brings to life the legal, political, and personal ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Act.

I received a free ARC from the publishers through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Chasing the North Star
by Robert Morgan
Algonquin Books
Publication Date: April 5, 2016
$25.95 hard cover
ISBN: 9781565126275

The Parker Sisters
by Lucy Maddox
Temple University Press
Publication Date: February 1, 2016
$28.50 hard cover

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