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Most escaped slaves remained in the south of the US

Afro-American slaves in the 19th century did not always flee to the north of the United States, according to historical research. Most of the slaves who fled remained in the southern states and posed as free coloured people. This is the conclusion that Professor Damian Pargas from Leiden University addressed in his inaugural lecture on 25 May.

Libraries are filled with books about slavery in the US and almost all historians state that the Afro-American slaves mainly fled to the northern states. Those slaves that fled within the southern states were thought to have remained there only temporarily. Pargas is Professor of the History and Culture of the United States. He and three PhD candidates studied the American states, cities, law courts and churches and came to a different conclusion: 'Most refugees remained in the southern states and conducted themselves as free coloured people.' 

Patterns of flight

Exact numbers are not available because the refugees were illegal, but most newspaper advertisements from the period with calls for the refugee slaves to register, refer to slaves who had gone into hiding in the South and who behaved as free black people. In addition, tens of thousands of slaves fled to the north: to the northern states or to Canada. According to estimates, some 5,000 refugees ended up in Mexico.  

Free black people helped refugees

In the course of the 18th century, in the western world, the resistance to slavery grew. In part under the influence of translantic discussions on freedom as a result of the French revolution, many northern states abolished slavery at the end of the 18th century.  But some southern plantation owners simply let their slaves go, which led to communities of free black people in the cities of the southern states. These free black people helped refugee slaves with documents by making false copies of their own papers. 

Introduction of medallions

Pargas's research group found legal documents that describe how black Americans broke into town halls to steal the seals needed to falsify documents. Apart from papers, the free Afro-Americans helped the refugee slaves with work and places to stay. Pargas: ‘In response to the falsifications, some states introduced medallions with which the free black people had to identify themselves because these medallions were more difficult to copy.' 


In the 1820s, all the northern states had abolished slavery, but in this period slavery was growing in the south Pargas: ‘Slaves were more valuable at the time because the plantation owners needed large number of workers to meet the needs of the growing demand for cotton.'The flight of slaves to the northern states brought about a major political and legal crisis. Slave owners in the north also had the right to demand the return of their sdlaves who had fled, provided they were the rightful owners. Authorities in many northern states refused to recognise this right, which caused many conflicts between the states. 

Civil Law

In 1861, the political and legal conflicts led to the American Civil War: the southern states cut themselves off, to some extent out of anxiety that they would have to abolish slavery. In 1865 they lost the war and ultimately had no option but to comply. Pargas stresses that abolition was not only attributable to the northern states. 'The free southern black people helped the slaves who had fled, and they contributed to the collapse of slavery.' 

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