In grade school, many Americans learn about the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network that helped Southern slaves escape to freedom elsewhere. What’s not well known is that there was also a Reverse Underground Railroad, a sinister system through which criminals kidnapped free people of color and sold them into slavery in the South.
“Stolen,” a new book by Richard Bell, documents a particularly tragic chapter in the grim history of this illegal network, and it involves the once-thriving slave markets of New Orleans.
In 1825, five young, free black boys in Philadelphia were lured onto a small ship with the promises of food and pay. Instead, they were abducted and taken south to be sold. We won’t spoil Bell’s story by detailing how the boys’ struggle for freedom was resolved, but suffice it to say that the odyssey he chronicles takes readers to Louisiana, which was, in the 19th century, highly dependent on slave labor.
“Free boys and girls were kidnapped, trafficked, and sold into slavery in the Cotton Kingdom all the time,” Bell writes. “It was big business and a major economic driver. If the Deep South had relied solely on enslaved labor supplied by legal traders, fewer crops could have been planted, harvested, and sold, and the region’s economy might not have taken off as quickly.”
Kidnapped children like the Philadelphia abduction victims were especially prized by slave traders, notes Bell, who teaches early American history at the University of Maryland. “Cheaper to feed, less likely to run or to fight, and easier to control, coerce, and intimidate than adult males, black boys were the staple of the Reverse Underground Railroad. International smugglers who brought slaves into New Orleans from Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean in the early nineteenth century also favored children.”
At one time, Bell writes, New Orleans was “the largest slave-trading center anywhere in the United States. Ships from Norfolk and other Chesapeake ports delivered about fifteen hundred slaves there each year in the mid-1820s.”
The slave trade meant big profits for New Orleans. “Home to just eight thousand people in 1803, the city had quadrupled in size by 1826 to become the fifth largest in the United States. A third of its residents were enslaved and worked as deliverymen, peddlers, and washerwomen.”
It’s an uncomfortable part of New Orleans’ history, but one that needs to be told. Bell’s story — part thriller, part tragedy, part ode to the resilience of the human spirit — goes a long way to making that history come alive.