by Scott Shane
Born into slavery, by the 1840s Thomas Smallwood 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: men like Hope Slatter, the region’s leading slave trader, part of a lucrative industry 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 Flee North -- the first to tell the extraordinary story of Smallwood -- offers complicated heroes, genuine villains, and a powerful narrative set in cities still plagued by shocking racial inequity today.