Before the general emancipation of American slaves during the Civil War, many secured their own freedom through escape, self-purchase, or being freed by the slaveholder. The conditions of ‘former slave’ and ‘freeman’ did not occur simultaneously for many slaves, psychologically or in reality.
Runaways who arrived in free territory were ‘fugitives’ with an ambiguous status for weeks or years. During the Civil War, slaves in Union-occupied territory were ‘contrabands’ with a similar ambiguous status.
Newspapers and journals fulfilled their role as watchdogs, reporting abuses, rights violations, and questionable arrests and claims of ownership to raise public Awareness and outrage. Lawyers defended the accused.
Abolitionist societies reported abuses and aided those in danger of losing their freedom. Quakers and others opposed to kidnapping communicated with contacts. The contacts included members of an anti-kidnapping Society that routinely visited slave pens to identify and rescue kidnap victims.
I am happy to inform you that you are not mistaken in the man whom you sold as property, and received pay for as such. But I thank God that I am not property now, but am regarded as a man like yourself, and although I live far north, I am enjoying a comfortable living by my own industry.
If you should ever chance to be traveling this way, and will call on me, I will use you better than you did me while you held me as a slave. Think not that I have any malice against you, for the cruel treatment which you inflicted on me while I was in your power.
As it was the custom of your country, to treat your fellow men as you did me and my little family, I can freely forgive you.
Kidnappings were the abduction of free blacks to sell on the slave market. When African Americans in Pennsylvania were kidnapped, they were taken to a slave pen for sale in the Deep South.
For legal and practical reasons, it was up to white citizens in the community to decide if they would give chase across the state line to effect a rescue.
African Americans joining in the rescue attempt risked jail, fines, and possible enslavement for entering the state; they would not have been allowed to testify on behalf of the accused.
African Americans did form self-defense leagues to protect themselves from the intrusion of slave catchers and kidnappers, but they could not safely pursue abductors.
Solomon Northup was an American abolitionist and the primary author of the memoir Twelve Years a Slave. A free-born African American from New York, he was the son of a freed slave and a free woman of color.
A farmer and a professional violinist, Northup had been a landowner in Hebron, New York.
In 1841, he was offered a traveling musician’s job and went to Washington, D.C. (where slavery was legal); there he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold as a slave.
He was shipped to New Orleans, purchased by a planter, and held as a slave for 12 years in the Red River region of Louisiana, mostly in Avoyelles Parish.
He remained a slave until he met a Canadian working on his plantation who helped get word to New York, where state law provided aid to free New York citizens who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery.
His family and friends enlisted the aid of the Governor of New York, Washington Hunt, and Northup regained his freedom on January 3, 1853.