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Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad Paperback – January 29, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

When 77 slaves attempted a daring escape down the Potomac River in a schooner called the Pearl in 1848, the nation's capital--especially the dozens of prominent citizens whose domestic slaves had disappeared--was shaken by the news. In returning to this audacious but largely forgotten episode in Escape on the Pearl, Mary Kay Ricks follows the stories of many of the slaves who made the perilous attempt and in the telling gives a short history of the last decades of American slavery and the country it divided. But most fascinating is her portrait of Washington, D.C., in the years before the Civil War, where North and South came together on territory where slavery was still legal, and where, for the African American residents of the city, the relative freedoms of the North and the terrors of transport to the brutal plantation slavery of the Deep South felt equally close.

Escape on the Pearl is Mary Kay Ricks's first book, after years of research on abolitionism and local D.C. history. For our Grownup School feature she has recommended the 11 books to read on the Underground Railroad, and she also answered a few of our questions about her book:

Questions for Mary Kay Ricks

Mary Kay RicksAmazon.com: How did you first come across the story of the escape on the Pearl?

Mary Kay Ricks: While researching 19th-century Washington history for a different project, I kept stumbling on references to an escape attempt on a schooner named the Pearl that set off pro-slavery riots in the streets of Washington. The incident went on to spark fierce debate on slavery in Congress--a discussion it always worked hard to avoid. I was a co-founder of Washington, D.C.'s High School Friends of SNCC during the civil rights struggle of the 1960's, so I thought I was well-versed in the struggle for freedom. Yet I had never heard the story of the Pearl, nor had most people I knew. I began researching the escape, and eventually accrued much material, even letters--never analyzed in connection with the story--that described much of the planning of the escape. I had to write this book.

Amazon.com: It was an explosive story at the time. What did the news represent for American society when it broke in 1848?

Ricks: The capture of a schooner attempting to take nearly 80 enslaved Americans to freedom on a schooner represented a breakdown of order and an organized resistance to slavery in the nation's capital that served as a harbinger of the growing conflict that would lead to the Civil War. At the same time, discussions in Congress were becoming increasingly fractious over whether slavery could be extended to the vast swath of new territory that had just come under the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government at the conclusion of the Mexican War. Southern politicians clamored to extend slavery into those lands and Northern politicians began to come together for the first time, for a variety of different reasons, to demand that it remain free soil. It was this struggle over whether those new lands would be free, slave, or a mix of each that led directly to the Civil War.

Amazon.com: One striking thing to me about the society you describe was that there wasn't a clean line between slavery and freedom. Families--even married couples--were divided between slave and free, some slaves were working for wages to buy their freedom, and free blacks, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, were always in danger of being reclaimed into slavery. What did freedom mean for African Americans before the Civil War, and what did they do to achieve it?

Ricks: Freedom, verified by legal papers that free people were required to carry on their persons, meant that you couldn't readily be taken away and sold to a slave trader, that you had some say in where you lived and worked, and that you could possibly work hard enough to raise money to free loved ones who were still enslaved. Purchasing freedom was a project fraught with obstacles. To give an example of just how costly slaves could be, Paul Edmonson, the free father of six children who joined the Pearl escape, owned a 40-acre farm in Maryland that was valued less than any of those children was as a slave. (All 14 Edmonson children were enslaved because their mother was a slave--that was the universal law in slave jurisdictions.) Enslaved African-Americans attempting to purchasing freedom were always at an extreme disadvantage because the arrangement relied on the good faith of an owner. Slave testimonies are filled with accounts of slaves who had paid all but the last few installments on their freedom when the owner changed the terms of the contract or ignored it completely and sold the nearly free person to a trader. And the death of owner could change everything as heirs worked to undo any promises of emancipation. That happened to 11 members of the Bell family who took their chances on the Pearl.

Fear of sale or removal to the Lower South was very real. In a little known American exodus, nearly one million slaves from the Upper South were part of a forced migration to new lands, which often separated them from loved ones who were owned by different people. Slaves often knew the warning signs that their owner was looking to sell, and some were able to find contacts for passage on the Underground Railroad. But it was simply unfeasible for large numbers of slaves, even those in the Upper South, to reach freedom. Money and other resources were extremely limited and escape usually meant splitting up families, the one thing that the enslaved attempted to avoid at all cost. Escape was also terribly risky and could land a fugitive, if captured, in a worse situation in the Deep South. That is what made the Pearl escape all the more extraordinary. And for those who did successfully reach the North, there was no guarantee that they would remain free. When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, more than 20,000 fugitives from slavery who had lived in the Northern states for years packed their bags and moved to Canada. Freedom meant leaving your homes and the country you were born in.

Amazon.com: Last year, James Swanson's Manhunt painted a vivid picture of Washington, D.C., at the end of the Civil War as a small town that is hard to recognize from our perspective. Your book could be seen as a prequel to that book in a way, both in its story of how we got to the Civil War and its same close attention to the geography of the capital city. What was the Washington you describe like in the 1840s?

Ricks: Before the Civil War, Washington was a city where the majority of politicians lived in boarding houses and hotels. Neighborhoods had popped up like isolated gopher holes where a few gleaming white-marble buildings rose out of the mud surrounded by small wooden and brick houses on streets rife with loose geese, pigs, and even cows. The Capitol, the U.S. Patent Office (today's newly refurbished Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art), the Executive Mansion, and the Post Office (now a hip downtown hotel) were then and are now spectacularly beautiful buildings. But much of the city, in contrast, looked bleak. Only Pennsylvania Avenue was paved. In 1848, long after New York, Boston, Baltimore, and even Newark had gas lighting, Congress had only just approved the formation of the Washington Gas Light Company. But theatre was popular and so were bowling, billiards, and gambling. Although many described Washington as a backwater with little sophistication, the newspaper advertisements show a surprising range of goods and foods from imported food delicacies, wines, and sherry to piano fortes. Pharmacies were well-stocked with supplies of Swedish leeches. But enormous changes would come with the Civil War. The population in the District of Columbia, about 51,000 in 1850, nearly trebled to over 130,000 by 1870. Many whites who had come to Washington for war jobs decamped the overburdened and rundown city after the war. But the 40,000 African Americans who had fled the Confederacy stayed.

Amazon.com: You share a last name with two of the fugitive slaves on the Pearl (and with some of their descendants)? Was that just a happy coincidence, or have you found a connection between their families and yours? What connections has writing about this story made for you?

Ricks: Two fugitives of the Pearl shared my last name but were not owned by people named Ricks. In fact, not one of the fugitives on board the Pearl shared a surname with an owner. My husband's family arrived in Virginia sometime in the mid-17th century as Quakers and became slave owners. They later became Baptists, probably when the Society of Friends forbade slave-owning. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin includes a copy of a runaway slave advertisement placed by one of my husband's ancestors. It is more likely that the fugitives on the Pearl, both of whom were transported to New Orleans with the Edmonsons, were descended from slaves who been owned at some time by a different branch of the English Ricks family who had come into Maryland many years before.

Interestingly, my family and I now feel very connected to an African-American couple from Maryland named Vernon and Janet Ricks, who are members of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Georgetown, a congregation which was formed in 1816 as the first black church in the District of Columbia and figures prominently in my book. Vernon Ricks, who may well be related to the two men who took a chance for freedom in 1848, and his wife are very active in their church, the NAACP, and many civic organizations. I worked with Vernon and Janet, Mt. Zion, the National Park Service, and a consortium of Georgetown organizations when I wrote and directed an historical recreation of an 1858 escape on the Underground Railroad to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of the tobacco port that is now a part of the District of Columbia. Vernon took on the role of Alfred Pope, a member of Mt. Zion and one of the few Pearl fugitives who had not been sold south after capture, and Janet played his wife. Later, my family was invited to a special Sunday at Mt. Zion to honor the Ricks family that had been part of that congregation for several generations. When the Ricks family members in the church were asked to rise, my husband and I, his parents, and our two children rose as well.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

When the Pearl slipped out of the U.S. capital one spring night in 1848 carrying 77 fugitives from slavery, "the largest known attempted escape on the Underground Railroad" had begun. But the ship was overtaken and the slaves sent to New Orleans to be sold, only to be spared by a fluke and returned to D.C., where Henry Ward Beecher took an interest in their plight and Harriet Beecher Stowe recounted their story in her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. The "lost" story of their role in the abolition of the slave trade in Washington is one worth telling, but Ricks isn't up to the job. Though a knowledgeable walking tour guide, she's defeated by the story's many threads: the background on slavery, abolition, the Underground Railroad and Washington D.C., the Pearl story (which is really two stories—one about its crew, one about its passengers) and the story of the remarkable Edmonson family, two sisters and four brothers hired out by their owner who joined the heroic escape. When focusing on the Edmonsons, Ricks shines fresh light on the peculiarities of slavery in the capital city. But too often she lapses into digression and repetition in this occasionally stimulating account.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (January 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060786604
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060786601
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #939,242 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Harriet Klausner #1 HALL OF FAME on February 10, 2007
Format: Hardcover
In 1848 some residents of Washington DC owned slaves though many others opposed the "curious institution". In April, conductors on the Underground Railroad try a bold freedom run using the Pearl to take seventy-seven runaway "fugitives" to freedom in the north. However, a terrible storm on the Chesapeake doomed the mission. The sheriff arrested the freedom fighters and took the recaptured slaves back to their owner who sent them to New Orleans for sale. Another twist returns the slaves to DC where Preacher and staunch abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher made efforts to get them freed and his daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe used their plight as part of her reference notes published as the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, two years after the classic was released.

This is a complex at times convoluted look back at a major incident of its time that has somewhat lost its significance over the subsequent century and a half. The book gets inside the heads of the slaves, slave sellers, slave owners, the Stowes and the Underground Railroad conductors. However, most fascinating besides the link to Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic is the way the citizens in the metropolitan DC area looked at slavery. Historical readers need to set aside some time because though difficult to follow because of how complex the events leading to, the event itself, and the subsequent aftereffect and outcome are, this is a discerning insightful look at the abomination of slavery.

Harriet Klausner
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Ralph H. Peters on February 11, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The author's knowledge of her subject is remarkable, her writing is graceful, and her judgments are consistently sound. This book is a great read, an exciting tale framed by a sharp, balanced and sensible portrayal of an era of shame, ferment and change in our history. Ricks's literal knowledge of the streets of which she writes makes this book vibrate with authenticity. I enjoyed it consistently--and learned enormously from reading Escape On The Pearl. Since I write fictional accounts of the period myself under the pen-name Owen Parry, I realize how complex a subject this author has taken on--and I can only say that it's humbling to see another writer do a far-better job than one can ever hope to do. This book deserves wide attention and, as readers, let us hope that Ricks will return to the period for additional books in the future.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Michael S., Washington, DC on January 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
"Escape on the Pearl" shows once again how there are so many fascinating and important stories from our history that are just waiting for a good storyteller to tell. Thankfully, Ricks has done so with the Pearl. The story she tells weaves together slavery, abolition and the politics of Washington with the personal struggles and triumphs of some very courageous people. Combining meticulous research with a passion for the subject matter, Ricks vividly recreates the events and locales in a way that brings to life these people, their hardships, and the times in which they lived. Such a moving, captivating story; so important to tell.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Karin Chenoweth on February 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ricks has uncovered rich detail about an almost forgotten incident that illuminates the American character and the American experience in ways that will astonish most readers. Many famous names play a part in the drama she relays--Horace Mann, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Francis Scott Key--but the key players are ordinary men and women desperately trying to establish lives of dignity against tremendous odds. Ricks is to be thanked for her beautifully written account.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Kaufman on January 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful book that combines history with a riveting story. Like Ken Burns' "Civil War" series it illuminates great themes--slavery and the battle against it--with rich detail, lovely writing and memorable, previously unknown characters. It is amazing this story hasn't been told before. It reads like a thriller as we follow the slaves on board the Pearl and their escape, wondering if they will make it. The historical sections deepen your knowledge of the characters on board the Pearl, and help you understand better the drama that follows.

What is best about this book is that it is really a story about heroes--black and white. At a time when many people feel bad about America, this book reminds us how good this country can be when ordinary people make courageous choices. From a historical point of view I found Ricks' discussion about the "internal slave trade"--the selling of slaves from one part of the south to another and the way that broke up families--revelatory and heart breaking. I have read a great deal about the Civil War and slavery but I hadn't realized before how big this "internal slave trade" was.

I can't wait to share this book with my friends, and with our teenaged children. It's a gem.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By kdbiblioteca on February 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is a great book. But don't take my word for it - Edward Ball, author of the bestseller Slaves in the Family, says "My kind of Southern history looks at slavery through people, and Mary Kay Ricks puts you on a first-name basis with the remarkable Edmonson family, who went through a mass escape, the near prostitution of two daughters, and a great homecoming. And she's found their descendants, who will tell you all about it." (quoted on the back of Escape on the Pearl).
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