- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007



William Morrow, $25.95, 448 pages


The latest book from former Department of Labor attorney Mary Kay Ricks is an illuminating read. Exhaustively researched and replete with historical detail, “Escape on the Pearl” manages to take a forgotten bit of history from 1848 — an attempted escape from Washington, D.C. by 77 slaves on a schooner called the Pearl — and credibly make the case that said escape was instrumental to the struggle to end slavery.

Ms. Ricks’ narrative focuses on the story of two sisters, Mary and Emily Edmonson, who were aboard the boat. They were desperate to escape D.C. in large part because they were scared of being sold to Southern landowners. After 1808, the African slave trade was illegal stateside, and thereafter most of the slaves bought by deep South landowners came from places like D.C. via what has come to be known as a “second Middle Passage.”

Working in the deep South was essentially a death sentence, and slaves like the Edmonsons knew that — and were willing to risk their lives to escape such harsh servitude.

And so it was that the Edmonsons were on the Pearl. Their escape attempt proved to be for naught, however. Foul weather waylaid them, making them easy prey for a posse dispatched after them via steamboat. The Pearl was towed back to Washington, and despite this adversity, the Edmonsons showed pluck.

When a hostile white man asked the girls if they were “ashamed” of having attempted an escape, young Emily responded that she was “proud” of what she had done.

This kind of pride was not unique to the Edmonsons. When interrogated after apprehension, and asked how she could leave such a “good home,” one slave replied “I wanted liberty, wouldn’t you sir?” Another slave, when her name was called, responded plaintively: “Here I am sir, once free, again a slave.”

A posture of pride was for naught in the short-term — the girls, along with many of the Pearl fugitives, were summarily shipped to New Orleans to be sold. But in the long run, that pride grew into the nation’s pride.

One thing that Ms. Ricks makes clear in the book is that the struggles African slaves endured stateside were as challenging as any endured by a subjugated people in history. Throughout this book, which deftly contextualizes the Pearl Escape within the larger frameworks of the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist movement, stories emerge of people society would have subjugated, who nonetheless yearn and instinctively reach for individual sovereignty.

All of this, despite being stuck in a culture that saw blacks as less than human. Even free blacks had to abide by black codes — these came to pass in the decades leading up to the Civil War, as Northern states sought to inhibit free blacks from settling amongst whites.

When one understands that the abolitionist movement grew within a culture determined to deny blacks (as well as quadroons and even octoroons) full personhood, he can understand both the stridency of the positions as well as the bravery of the whites willing to go against the color bar and do what was right.

In this volume, Ms. Ricks introduces us to many of the most prominent members of the abolitionist movement, who offered succor to the Edmonsons in various ways. Here we meet firebrand preacher Henry Ward Beecher and his sister, acclaimed novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, who were responsible for the emancipation of Mary and Emily and for the amplification of their story into “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Once emancipated, the Edmonsons continued on their upward trajectory — getting educated at Oberlin College and participating in various abolitionist events in the years before the Civil War.

If there is a principal shortcoming to the present volume, it is that the narrative drags in the last couple of chapters. The further Ms. Ricks gets from the actual “escape on the Pearl,” the less urgent the story reads. While it was necessary for the author to take the story toward its logical conclusion, the book would have been better served by her doing so in a more succinct manner.

Despite this qualm, “Escape on the Pearl” is a welcome and necessary addition to our history of the 19th century and the movement to end slavery in the United States.

A.G. Gancarski is a writer in Jacksonville, Fla.

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