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A Chapter In U.S. History Often Ignored: The Flight Of Runaway Slaves To Mexico

Feb 28, 2021
Originally published on February 28, 2021 4:46 pm

In a forgotten cemetery on the edge of Texas in the Rio Grande delta, Olga Webber-Vasques says she's proud of her family's legacy — even if she only just learned the full story.

Turns out her great-great-grandparents, who are buried there, were agents in the little-known underground railroad that led through South Texas to Mexico during the 1800s. Thousands of enslaved people fled plantations to make their way to the Rio Grande, which became a river of deliverance.

"I don't know why there wasn't anything that we would've known as we were growing up. It amazes me to learn the underground deal — I had no idea at all," says Webber-Vasques, 70, who recently learned the story of her forebear John Ferdinand Webber from her daughter-in-law who has researched family history.

"I'm very proud to be a Webber," she says.

The flight of runaway slaves to Mexico is a chapter of history that is often overlooked or ignored. As the U.S. Treasury ponders putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill to commemorate her role in the northbound underground railroad, new attention is being paid to this southbound route.

Alice Baumgartner, a historian at the University of Southern California, is at the forefront of a burst of recent scholarship. A number of researchers are expanding knowledge of the important role that Mexico played in providing a refuge for enslaved people.

Alice Baumgartner, a historian at the University of Southern California, is the author of a groundbreaking new book, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War.
Paul Luke

Mexico represented liberty

Baumgartner's groundbreaking new book, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War, was published late last year. She says Mexico in the 19th century is often regarded as "a place defined by poverty and political instability and violence" — and is rarely given credit for its role in providing a safe haven for runaway slaves.

"This history is to me most surprising because it shows us the side of Mexico as a place that actually was contributing to global debates about slavery and freedom," Baumgartner says.

From the 1830s up to emancipation, she estimates 3,000 to 5,000 enslaved people fled south and crossed over to free Mexican soil. That is far fewer than the estimated 30,000 to 100,000 enslaved people who crossed the Mason-Dixon line to reach free northern states and Canada.

But from the vantage of an East Texas plantation, liberty was a lot closer in Mexico.

Enslaved sailors and stowaways from New Orleans and Galveston, Texas, jumped ship in Mexican ports. Slaves drove wagons of cotton to market in Brownsville, Texas, and then slipped across the muddy river to Matamoros, Mexico. But their main mode of transportation was on horseback traversing the vast, feral stretches of South Texas down to the border.

"Sometimes someone would come 'long and try to get us to run up north and be free. We used to laugh at that," said former slave Felix Haywood, interviewed in 1937 for the federal Slave Narrative Project.

Haywood was 92 at the time, blind, white-haired and weather-beaten. He was born into slavery and as a young man tended cattle and sheep for ranchers around San Antonio.

Former slave Felix Haywood, 92 years old when he was photographed in San Antonio in 1937, told an interviewer, "All we had to do was to walk, but walk south, and we'd be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande."
Library of Congress

"There wasn't no reason to run up north," he continued in the interview. "All we had to do was to walk, but walk south, and we'd be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico, you could be free. They didn't care what color you was — black, white, yellow or blue. Hundreds of slaves did go to Mexico and got on all right."

Pathways to get to the Rio Grande

While the northbound underground railroad depended on a network of people who sheltered and aided fugitive slaves, the southern route was more informal.

"We didn't have a conductor like a Harriet Tubman, and we didn't have a certain station like they did in Philadelphia where they could live and make some money," says Roseann Bacha-Garza, a borderlands historian at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and one of the few experts on the southern route to freedom.

"What we did have down here were pathways that people could follow to get to the Rio Grande."

There were, however, abolitionists on the border who could be counted on to help Black people escape the southwestern extreme of the slave South.

In the Webber Cemetery lie the remains of John Webber and his wife, Silvia Hector Webber. The cemetery is situated just north of the twisting Rio Grande, near the town of Donna, Texas.

Webber was a white settler new to Texas who fell in love with Hector, an enslaved woman. They had three children together, and he bought their freedom from his business partner. They homesteaded in the hamlet that now bears his name — Webberville, east of Austin.

But Texas was still a slave state. And the suffocating racial codes of antebellum Texas eventually drove the family away. They moved to the Rio Grande Valley, where they bought a ranch just downstream from another interracial abolitionist family — Nathaniel Jackson and his African American wife, Matilda Hicks Jackson.

Both the Webbers and the Jacksons were well-known in the clandestine grapevine of runaways.

"They knew they were sympathetic to their cause," Bacha-Garza says. "The families had their own licensed ferry landings on their properties, which made it very easy for them to shepherd these runaway slaves across the river into free Mexico."

The breakneck flight from an East Texas cotton plantation to the border was a perilous journey. Runaway slaves had to survive the Nueces Strip, the 160-mile expanse between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. It's the same treacherous ranchland where today immigration agents find the scattered bones of unauthorized migrants who perished on the trek north.

"It's a dry, parched landscape. There's not many trees. No matter what time of year, it is hot, hot, hot," Bacha-Garza says. "No running streams, snakes, scorpions. It was not an easy trip, but it was a doable trip."

Kyle Ainsworth, project director of the Texas Runaway Slave Project, searches for notices about fugitive slaves in 19th-century Texas newspapers. His project is housed at the East Texas Research Center at Stephen F. Austin State University.
John Burnett / NPR

Back then, the borderlands were different from the rest of slaveholding Texas. A white man, his Black wife and their children could live in peace.

"Along the river, you don't see the deeply ingrained racism because the river has been home to a mixture of people — mestizos, mulattoes," says Francisco Guajardo, CEO of the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg. "The river is a place of tolerance, believe it or not. The racial codes were not enforced down here because there was nobody to enforce them."

Most fugitive slaves in Texas did run south — a fact known, in part, through the painstaking work being done by the Texas Runaway Slave Project, housed at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. Researchers looked through nearly 19,000 Texas newspapers from the 1840s through the 1860s.

"And it's from this research that we've been able to find so much about runaway slaves escaping to Mexico," says project director Kyle Ainsworth.

On his computer, he reads an item in the Galveston Weekly News from May 11, 1858. "$25 Reward. Ran away on the 19th of April, from W.T. Stevens' plantation ... a Mulatto Boy, named Tom, about 28 years old. ... Was raised in Milam county, Texas ... and he is supposed to be there or on his way to Mexico."

Researchers are learning about the flight of enslaved people to Mexico by unearthing notices like this one that appeared in the Galveston Weekly News in 1858.
East Texas Digital Archives / Stephen F. Austin State University

Mexico began to gradually abolish slavery soon after it declared independence from Spain in 1821. The Mexican Congress fully outlawed slavery in 1837, well before the United States did so with the 13th Amendment in 1865.

Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836 and eventually joined the U.S. as a slave state. Mexico lost again in the Mexican-American War, and the Rio Grande became the southern boundary of the United States.

Baumgartner says Mexico's abolition of slavery exerted a gravitational pull on enslaved people in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi as King Cotton was expanding.

So while Mexico lost huge expanses of its territory in the wars, she says its anti-slavery position gave it a sort of "moral capital."

"Mexico was much less powerful than the United States, but anti-slavery gave it a way to find victory in defeat. The United States being this aggressive, slaveholding conquering nation and Mexico as this country that could actually stand upright before the civilized world for its anti-slavery positions."

Mexico did have a system of forced labor even after it abolished slavery. Hacienda owners depended on debt peonage to keep their workers in bondage, and some considered that a form of slavery.

But many Mexicans were sympathetic to fugitive slaves from Texas and the United States, according to María Hammack, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.

In fact, Mexicans would often put up a fight against vigilantes and bounty hunters from Texas looking for escaped slaves who had crossed over the river to free Mexican soil.

"Mexican authorities at times would help the now-free men and women in Mexico from being taken and returned back to the United States," says Hammack, who is writing her dissertation on the Webber family and how fugitive slaves gained freedom in Mexico.

Moreover, Mexican laborers working in Texas befriended slaves and acted as guides to help them escape south. This happened so often that enslavers came to distrust any Mexican.

"Under Texas law, Mexicans and enslaved persons were not allowed to be found together or to collaborate or even speak to each other," Hammack says.

She says that when she was growing up in Los Mochis in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, she never learned about the outsize role that her country played in Texas slavery.

María Hammack, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, has unearthed the story of Silvia Hector Webber, an enslaved woman who became an abolitionist in the Texas-Mexico borderlands.
John Burnett / NPR

"I didn't know that Mexico was a safe haven for individuals to find freedom in the 19th century."

It wasn't until a couple of years ago that Texas changed the way students learn about the Civil War. They're now taught that slavery did play a central role in the war.

But slaveholding was also a driving force in the Texas Revolution, and historians note that this is still downplayed in celebrations of Texas Independence Day. On Tuesday, the state marks 185 years since declaring independence from Mexico.

Historians point out that some enslaved people saw Mexican troops as their liberators and that slaves fled to the ranks of the retreating Mexican army, hoping to make it to free Mexico, after the decisive Battle of San Jacinto, near present-day Houston.

Educators in Texas may be eager to include the southbound underground railroad into their classrooms, if Alaine Hutson is a barometer. She's a history professor at Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black college in Austin.

While Hutson says she knew Mexico had outlawed slavery before the U.S. did, she did not know the full history of the southbound route to freedom.

She says this new material fits into a theme she always emphasizes with her students — that African Americans throughout history have been architects of their own liberation, like the former slave turned abolitionist Silvia Hector Webber.

"African Americans during slavery, after slavery, during Reconstruction, during Jim Crow and after Jim Crow, and some would say into the new Jim Crow, have always tried to decide as much about our fate as possible," Hutson says.

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"And so it was nice to see that African Americans in Texas had the opportunity to help people get away to Mexico. And so Silvia and her family were doing that here in Texas."

Hutson began teaching this history to her African American studies class at Huston-Tillotson this year. During a recent Zoom class, she asked her students to reflect on it.

"The thing that really caught my eye was that African Americans were going to another country and actually treated better, knowing we had freedoms in Mexico that we didn't have in the United States," says Duntavian Thomas, a 24-year-old kinesiology major from Nacogdoches. "As soon as African Americans touched down on Mexican soil, we were free."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, decades after legendary singer Billie Holiday last took the stage, she is back in the spotlight. Hulu just released "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday," a film about the jazz icon starring Andra Day and directed by Lee Daniels. And while many people might know Holiday's struggles with addiction from previous treatments of her life, this film focuses on something else - the way Holiday was targeted by federal authorities, both for her addiction and for her activism through her art, especially her insistence on singing the famous anti-lynching anthem "Strange Fruit."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

MARTIN: The film is based in part on reporting for the book "Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days Of The War On Drugs" by Johann Hari. It's about why and how certain drugs came to be criminalized in the U.S. Hari served as an executive producer of the new film, and when we spoke, he told me how he learned about how Holiday became the focus of the anti-drug war.

JOHANN HARI: And one of the questions I asked myself was just, well, when did we even start going to war against people with addiction problems? When did we get the idea that was a good idea? And I learned about this man, Harry Anslinger, who's probably the most influential person who no one's ever heard of. And our film is really the story of the collision between him and Billie Holiday.

So in 1939, she walks on stage at a hotel in midtown Manhattan, and she sings that incredible song that you just played a clip from, "Strange Fruit." It's the idea that in the South, there's this strange fruit that hangs from the trees. It's the bodies of Black men who'd been murdered. And sometime later, after she first performed this song, she received a warning to stop singing it. And she refused. And the next day, she was arrested. And this is part of this epic conflict that took place between Billie Holiday and her bravery and Harry Anslinger.

So Harry Anslinger invented the modern war on drugs. He's the first person to ever use that phrase. He was the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and he really built the drug war around two groups he hated intensely. The first was Black people. The second was people with addiction problems. So to him, Billie Holiday is the incarnation of everything he hated. She's a Black woman standing up to white supremacy. And because she'd been horrifically abused as a child, she had an addiction problem. And the film is really the story of her brave resistance to him.

MARTIN: But why do you think it is that he was so fixated on Black people and drug use? And that - you point out that there were other - you know, white people who had - white celebrities, white socialites - who similarly had these problems, but he didn't have the same kind of disdain for them or hatred for them. Why do you think that is? I mean, just - he just thought that white people who fell into addiction somehow were what? It was a mistake, whereas with Black people, it was somehow genetic or something? Like, can you unpack that a little bit?

HARI: I think we've seen that more recently if you compare how people reacted to - the general public reaction to the rise of crack addiction in the 1980s and early 1990s and the rise of opioid addiction in more recent years. Those are comparable tragedies with comparable causes, mostly lying in despair, right? The opposite of addiction is connection. Of course, there's been a racialized way of interpreting this. In fact, one of the reasons the drug war is created is as a way to suppress Black people quite consciously.

If you look at the early documents, as I did, around the foundation of the drug war, you know, it's founded in this extreme racial hysteria. It's this belief that Black people and Latinos are using drugs, forgetting their place, in inverted commas, and attacking white people. And this absolutely informs how Harry Anslinger thinks about Billie Holiday, that she's forgetting her place, right?

This is a - this is his worst nightmare. She's a Black woman standing up to white supremacy and persuading other white people. This, to him, is a nightmare, and he had a long record of using his power to try to suppress speech he didn't agree with. He did this with scientists who criticized his policies. And I think it's pretty clear it was one aspect of why he so viciously goes after Billie Holiday. You have to account for, why is the most vocally anti-racist person, Billie Holiday, the person he most viciously persecutes? I mean, he even gloats about it in his writing. After she died, he writes gloatingly, well, there'll be no more "Good Morning Heartache" for her.

MARTIN: Wow. Wow. I confess I never heard this name before. I mean, I think people know a lot about prohibition - right? - prohibition against alcohol. And they know a lot about those figures. And then they know that - they know kind of that there was this war on drugs, which I think people associate with Richard Nixon. Why do you think Harry Anslinger's role in this is not so well known or the origins of this is not so well known?

HARI: It took three transformations in consciousness for us to be able to see Billie Holiday the way that we do in this film. One - and the story of what Harry Anslinger did to Billie Holiday. One is a transformation in how we see race. Your listeners don't need me to explain how that transformation's been happening. One is a transformation in how we think about addiction.

So Harry Anslinger was one of the pioneers of the idea that addiction is a moral failing, right? If you're addicted, you party too hard. You indulged yourself. That's why this happened to you. Increasingly - and the best scientific evidence that I go through in my book, Chasing The Scream" - shows that addiction is, in fact, a response to deep pain and suffering.

And the third transformation, I would say, is a transformation in how we think about sexual abuse. One of the reasons - I think the main reason - that Billie had the addiction problem she had is because she was a survivor of horrific sexual abuse. Again, you can see very clearly why someone who had survived such a terrible thing would need to anesthetize themselves, initially with alcohol, later with heroin.

MARTIN: It sounds like this story really haunts you.

HARI: Yeah. This is really close to my heart because, you know, some of the people I most love have addiction problems. A very close relative of mine at the moment is struggling with addiction problems. And I know this might sound a bit grandiose, but I really feel like what the people who made this film have done - Lee Daniels, the amazing director, Andra Day, the goddess who plays Billie Holiday, Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote the amazing screenplay - I feel like in some way, we have avenged Billie Holiday.

Now, it's not enough. The vengeance should have come in her lifetime. She should have been vindicated then. But we weren't ready to listen. The wider society was so lost in its hatred of Black people, of addicts, of so many groups. But I feel like now when we remember Billie Holiday, we won't remember, oh, the genius who was brought down by her flaws. We will remember the genius who was not only a genius in music, but a genius in life and a moral genius who saw ahead, who saw what had to be done.

And if we had listened to Billie Holiday then, there would be a lot of Black people who were killed who'd still be alive, a lot of Black people who were imprisoned who would have lived free lives, and a lot of people who died of addictions who would have lived to recover and have good lives. I think it's time we started really listening to Billie Holiday.

MARTIN: Johann Hari is the author of "Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days Of The War On Drugs." He's also an executive producer of the new movie "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday," which is out now on Hulu.

Johann Hari, thanks so much for talking with us today.

HARI: Oh, it's such an honor to be on your show. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL OF ME")

ANDRA DAY: (Singing) All of me, why not take all of me? Can't you see I'm no good without you? Take my lips. I want to lose them. Take my arms, I'll never use them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.