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  • To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker by Sydney Nathans
  • Lea VanderVelde (bio)
To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker. By Sydney Nathans. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. 330. Cloth, $29.95.)

To Free a Family is the extraordinarily insightful account of a former slave woman, Mary Walker, who walked away from her North Carolina masters while in their service in free Philadelphia. To a considerable extent, she succeeded admirably. She found work and friends. Deeply troubled by the fact that she left her mother and three children behind in slavery, Mary Walker, with the help of her friends, tried repeatedly to bring her family out of slavery. [End Page 129]

The story is beautifully written. Nathans draws the arc of emotion elegantly from descriptions taken from letters. The material upon which the story is constructed includes vivid quotes from Mary Walker's white helpmates, in whose household she often lived. In an emotional letter, one of her friends wrote to the family that continued to hold Walker's children beseeching them to permit the children's release: "I have been lately touched to the heart with a case of heart breaking distress which you have it entirely in your power I find to cure" (1). What powerful advocacy!

As a biography of a former slave, the book understandably contains fewer and far less passionate expressions by Mary Walker herself. Walker was exceptional, however, in that she had been taught to read and write while enslaved in the South. Although she continued to practice reading and writing in freedom, she was extremely cautious about expressing her true emotions to the white friends who had befriended her. Despite her usual reserve, Walker at times let her emotions show, such as when she refused to work for a family with children because they reminded her of her own too painfully.

Spoiler alert! Although the book is entitled To Free a Family, Mary Walker's family was never freed as long as slavery remained legal. In spite of several attempts to bring her family out of slavery, it was freed only with the defeat of the Confederacy and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Partial answers beget further questions. Given the earnestness and perseverance of an influential, well-connected Massachusetts white family, one wonders why all the attempts to free Mary Walker's family failed? And in light of the fact that they owned other slaves, why did the Duncans hang on to Walker's children, whom they deemed "ungrateful pets"? Were the intermediaries sent to Raleigh to secure the release of Walker's children conductors on the Underground Railroad? Why did they too fail? The record leaves little evidence for understanding the chain of events that led Walker to slip away to independence while in Philadelphia. Did she plan her escape, or did she act impulsively in making the leap? One also wonders what cannot be asked: whether Mary Walker ever regretted leaving her children in order to gain and retain her freedom.

The book also highlights how the saga of fugitives continued once they successfully made their way to freedom, as former slaves lived in something of a diaspora. After Mary's son Frank escaped to the North, he tried but failed to find his mother. Frank evaded the Duncans' attempts to recapture him, but the underground network that shielded Mary and conducted her to Massachusetts did not help Frank find her. And although Mary tried [End Page 130] to track him down by enlisting persons in Canada and England and even Frederick Douglass, she was never able to locate him. The book uses clever symmetry to demonstrate that while the Duncans were using covert measures to try to find Frank, Mary Walker and her friends were undertaking similarly covert measures to procure the freedom of her children remaining in North Carolina.

There is a legal distinction between Mary Walker's action in walking away from her masters while in Philadelphia, where slavery was no longer legal, and her son's flight from slavery in North Carolina. Only Frank should have been considered a fugitive. Mary quit her enslavement while in a free...


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pp. 129-131
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