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  • To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker
  • Kabria Baumgartner (bio)

Slavery, Mary Walker, Slave families, Free African Americans, Fugitive slaves

To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker. By Sydney Nathans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. 330. Cloth, $29.95.)

Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, and Mary Walker: For most readers familiar with American history, the first three names are recognizable. Tubman, Truth, and Jacobs were enslaved African American women who escaped slavery and fought for black emancipation and civil rights in nineteenth-century America. Mary Walker did too, but until now her story went untold.

In To Free a Family, distinguished historian Sydney Nathans recovers the lived experiences of Mary Walker, from her upbringing as an enslaved servant on the Cameron plantation in North Carolina to her work as a freedwoman supporting her family in Massachusetts. Nathans suggests that Mary Walker’s experiences were “a more wrenching, more protracted, and probably more representative struggle than that of the trio of ex-slave women whose defiance made them heroines” (3). He raises a valid point. Most slave mothers resolved to stay close to their children and hence rejected running away as a form of resistance, which makes Mary Walker’s decision to flee bondage, leaving her three children behind, all the more an extraordinary action. Thus Mary’s abiding quest to reunite her family, Nathans argues, reveals the “hidden epic of emancipation” (4).

Born on August 18, 1818 to Priscilla, an enslaved servant, and an unknown, white father, Mary Walker grew up on the Fairntosh Plantation in central North Carolina. Described as “fair skinned,” Mary served the Cameron family and, while doing so, learned to read, write, and sew (2). At the age of thirteen or fourteen, she bore her first child, Frank, in 1832. She had three more children: Agnes, born in 1837; Edward, born in 1840 and died in 1848; and Bryant, born in 1844. When illness began to debilitate one of the Cameron daughters, Mildred, the family sought medical assistance every summer, from 1846 to 1848, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During that period of time, Mary accompanied the family as caregiver and faithful servant. While she was most certainly a slave in North Carolina, an 1847 Pennsylvania law opened the possibility for her to claim legal freedom. Ten days before her thirtieth birthday, she [End Page 177] escaped. Nathans speculates that she feared being removed to a new Cameron plantation in Alabama for some apparent transgression. For two years, she lived in the relatively safe haven of Philadelphia.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, which compelled citizens to assist in the recapture of fugitive slaves, precipitated Mary’s move from Philadelphia to Boston that November. She eventually resided with Peter and Susan Lesley where she worked as a seamstress; later on she became a caregiver to Anne Jean Lyman, Susan Lesley’s mother, in nearby Cambridge. Upon learning of patriarch Duncan Cameron’s death, she embarked upon her journey to free her enslaved children. Unbeknownst to her, Frank, her oldest son, had escaped in 1852. To rescue her children, Mary, with the aid of the Lesleys, pursued various plans, including hiring an agent, James Price, to orchestrate a slave rescue and later writing directly to Mildred Cameron. None of these plans worked. Mary thought often of her children, but as major events related to the expansion of slavery gripped the nation, her plans were thwarted. She committed herself instead to helping freed people, traveling to the South Carolina Sea Islands to provide aid. As the Civil War came to an end in 1865, she returned to Cambridge and finally her two children, now adults with their own families, joined her. Seven years later, she passed away.

Prior to Mary’s reunion with her children, the Lesleys had been Mary’s adoptive family, but the Lesley–Walker friendship was an unlikely one. Peter Lesley expressed antislavery sympathies but had not joined the radical abolition movement. When he learned of Mary Walker’s plight from his cousin James Lesley, Peter became an ardent abolitionist, declaring in front of his congregation, “Harbor, and protect the oppressed wherever you behold...


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