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“Urban Refugees: Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Informal Freedom in the American South”

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Slave flight in the antebellum South did not always coincide with the political geography of freedom. Indeed, spaces and places within the South attracted the largest number of fugitive slaves, especially southern cities, where runaway slaves attempted to pass for free blacks. Disguising themselves within the slaveholding states rather than risk long-distance flight attempts to formally free territories such as the northern US, Canada, and Mexico, fugitive slaves in southern cities attempted to escape slavery by crafting clandestine lives for themselves in what I am calling “informal” freedom—a freedom that did not exist on paper and had no legal underpinnings, but that existed in practice, in the shadows. This article briefly examines the experiences of fugitive slaves who fled to southern cities in the antebellum period (roughly 1800–1860). It touches upon themes such as the motivations for fleeing to urban areas, the networks that facilitated such flight attempts, and, most importantly, the lot of runaway slaves after arrival in urban areas.

Affiliations: 1: Leiden University, The Netherlands,


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