10 years ago, as part of the 2009 Hidden City Festival, Mother Bethel A.M.E Church welcomed artist Sanford Biggers’ installation of quilts, Constellation. The fiber artwork was created to honor the church as the North Star among a group of satellite Philadelphia locations that all served as part of the Underground Railroad. Earlier this month, Hidden City hosted a special tour at Mother Bethel to commemorate the anniversary of the 2009 festival, which is how I found myself standing in the church’s basement museum on a recent Saturday morning. During the visit our tour guide explained that Richard Allen–minister, educator, and widely influential black leader–was once seized by slave catchers. I don’t think that statement would have registered if I hadn’t just spent the previous day reading Richard Bell’s captivating new book, Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery And Their Astonishing Odyssey Home, published by Simon and Schuster in October 2019.
We’ve all heard of the Underground Railroad. But, according to Bell, at the same time on a yearly basis an almost equal number of individuals were forced to make the opposite journey on something called the “Reverse Underground Railroad.” It appears that Allen was one of the earliest victims of attempted kidnapping by a vast system of unscrupulous men. While our country was still figuring out how to be a country and how to deal with race and the question of slavery, the federal government passed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which took effect in 1808. In the coming decades, a number of economic and political forces—western expansion, increased labor needs, emerging technology, and the potential for vast wealth—combined with this legislation to create a wildfire-like spread of an enormous human trafficking network, which sent free blacks from the North into the depths of the burgeoning cotton kingdom of the South. The story of Allen, a former slave turned founder of Mother Bethel and one of the most prominent members of Philadelphia’s free black community, is an extreme outlier when it comes to crossing paths with a ruthless slave catcher. Well-known and connected, Allen was actually able to counter-sue his would-be captor before anything happened to him. The five young boys featured in Richard Bell’s new book, Stolen, represent an entirely different story and set of circumstances.
Before we get to the “astonishing odyssey” of the subjects of Stolen, I’d like to start with the research odyssey of author Bell who mentions unearthing treasures “buried within 35 archives in 14 states and the District of Columbia.” Several of Philadelphia’s most esteemed archives were utilized, including the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP), the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), the Philadelphia City Archives, and the Special Collections Library at Haverford College. Key sources came from the Joseph Watson Papers, 1824-1828, held at HSP. The book also benefits from illustrations uncovered at LCP. Stolen is a testament to the incredible historical resources our city represents.
In Bell’s estimation, the initial journey his five young Philadelphia boys—Sam, Joe, Cornelius, Enos, and Alex—were forced to take included some 1,000 miles, or 2 million steps on foot, to their final stop in Mississippi. They ranged in age from eight to 15 years, such ages judged most profitable by the notorious Cannon-Johnson gang whose Delmarva-based human trafficking operations supplied the ever-growing cotton fields of the South. From their initial abduction from the Philadelphia waterfront, we follow the boys as they are held captive on water and land by a series of cruel enslavers. It is in Mississippi and Alabama that we find the fates of these young black boys determined by several well-established white men who must defy all expectations. These are men whose livelihoods depend, either directly or indirectly, on a slave society. While their actions were often in self interest, they showed just how deeply intertwined the North and the South was, through family and business connections. Everyone had their long-term interests to protect. And slavery, as a system, depended on interstate cooperation, especially with a state like Pennsylvania and its wealthy Philadelphia citizens. Even understanding these nuances, if you didn’t know Stolen was based on actual history one could easily assume this story was implausible fiction. This is especially true when you think about how easily a letter could be waylaid or fall into the wrong hands. Yet, Philadelphia’s mayor at the time, Joseph Watson, did receive his mail and was alerted to the grave danger facing his young constituents. He took on their cause with great fervor. Several key letters from this time survive in Watson’s papers at HSP.
It was either through unimagined bravery or complete desperation that Sam, one of the young boys, set off a chain of events that would have unimagined consequences. The plight of these five boys is the first kidnapping in American history to be obsessively reported on by newspapers and discussed across the country. Bell found articles in newspapers representing 23 cities in 12 states. Their story would start a chain of legislative events that ricocheted from Pennsylvania’s 1826 Personal Liberty Law, to the reactionary Federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and ultimately helped lead our nation to Civil War.
In the end, four of the young boys returned to a home no less safe than the one they’d been kidnapped from. In truth, there was no safe place for a person of color at the time. Human trafficking networks would expand to the borders of all the free states, hunting their prey in New York, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Not much is known about the lives these young boys led in later years, yet I’d like to think they found happiness despite their constant lack of security. The actions of former Mayor Watson were not celebrated. In fact, most white Philadelphians did not appreciate their mayor’s help in getting these boys back home. His actions cost him the next election. In a final speech made to the members of City Council, Mayor Watson spoke at length about his fight against the Cannon-Johnson kidnapping crew. He lamented the fact he’d fallen short, especially as he remembered the countless men, women, and children who had been swallowed up and “doomed to slavery for life” despite having once walked freely on the streets of Philadelphia. While he did not know where they ended up, he knew who they were. He took this moment in front of his colleagues and recited each of their names, clearly and precisely, one by one. If there is one moment in Stolen that resonates for present day readers, it should be this. Say their names.