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, 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.
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.
“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., Harvard University
"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
“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
"Written in an engaging, dynamic style, Flee North will captivate readers who want to know how people like Smallwood succeeded in duping countless enslavers. The fascinating tale of a swashbuckling abolitionist and his white activist companion will make readers wish for a film adaptation. This book is a tale of triumph in the face of unspeakable adversity. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries."
—Booklist, STARRED Review
"A forgotten chapter in abolitionist history is restored to history in a lively, readable narrative."
"Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Shane (Objective Troy) brings to vivid life the exploits of abolitionist Thomas Smallwood in this exhilarating account. [...] This astonishing and propulsive narrative rights a historical wrong by returning Smallwood to prominence. It’s an absolute must-read."
—Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review
“Flee North, a gripping story told at a brisk pace in the no-fuss prose of a practiced reporter, is a model of the advantages that journalists can bring to the writing of history… [It] is the kind of story we sorely need at a time when there is no shortage of opportunities for inspiring acts of heroism.”
—The Washington Post
"'Flee North' stands on its own...as both a thrilling portrait of the underground in action and as an inspiring demonstration of the extraordinary personal courage and sacrifice that activists demanded of themselves at a time when slavery’s defenders dominated the national government and cynical businessmen like Slatter built mansions on profits derived from selling their fellow human beings."
—The Wall Street Journal