With few exceptions, we know little about the day-to-day lives of female runaways, their families, and their relationships with Northern whites. Sydney Nathans’s To Free a Family is a minor masterpiece that goes a long way toward filling this gap. [It is] deeply researched and elegantly written… Nathans is brilliant at reconstructing Mary Walker’s life and her relationship with Peter and Susan Lesley… Nathans creates a vibrant and subtle portrait of the Lesleys, enabling readers to decide for themselves how trusting Mary Walker’s relationship with them became. The result is a remarkable story of an extended biracial family that embarked on a 15-year effort to reunite Walker with her surviving children.
-- John Stauffer Wall Street Journal
Like so many other slave stories, Walker’s is mostly shrouded in mystery, but Sydney Nathans has found enough reliable documentation to render it plausible and pertinent… Nathans is a careful researcher and lucid writer.
-- Jonathan Yardley Washington Post
A page-turning history.
-- Pam Kelley Charlotte Observer
In piecing together Walker’s story, historian Sydney Nathans has accomplished a remarkable feat. With a penetrating eye, he researched letters, diaries, public records and more to uncover the wrenching details of Walker’s efforts to reunite her family. Where sources did not reveal the entire story, Nathans is careful to explore multiple possibilities and weigh them. The historian’s craft is readily apparent throughout each chapter. To Free a Family will enthrall the casual reader as well as the scholar. Detailed maps and historic photographs immerse the reader in Walker’s world. The tumultuous events of the Civil War era do not just serve as a contextual backdrop; one can see direct effects on ordinary people. Almost two decades after escaping, Walker brought her family back together. Her compelling journey reinforces that slavery, in all its brutality, did not destroy the African-American family.
-- Nathan P. Johnson Post and Courier
[A] penetrating narrative… [A] captivating book.
-- Charles Shea LeMone Roanoke Times
Nathans provides a compelling account of one mixed-race slave woman and her quest for freedom, as well as her long struggle to reunite her family in the North… Nathan’s effort to reconstruct long-overlooked historical events through the close readings of correspondence and public records is commendable and comprises an educational, informative contribution to the U.S. narrative.
-- C. Warren Choice
Prior to the Civil War, thousands of African Americans escaped from slavery, but because few recorded their experiences little is known about their efforts to forge new lives in freedom. Mary Walker, the focus of this study, was a light-skinned fugitive who escaped from a North Carolina planter couple when she accompanied them to Philadelphia in 1848. Her history, though unique in many ways, is illustrative of the hardships and challenges such migrants faced and the support they sometimes received from abolitionist networks. Her efforts to preserve her freedom, gain economic independence, and locate and purchase the freedom of her children still held as slaves is pieced together here by Nathans from the papers of Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders. The result is an engrossing and readable study, thoroughly researched and well documented, that fills a significant gap in the history of the period. It is recommended for all readers seriously interested in the experience of fugitive slaves in Antebellum America.
-- Theresa McDevitt Library Journal (starred review)
In this rigorously scholarly but totally absorbing narrative, Nathans unfolds a history as spellbinding as a novel, chock-full of fascinating people engaged in a venture both risky and affecting. When the fugitive slave Mary Walker finds refuge with the Lesleys in Pennsylvania, their lives, their families, and their circle of friends become deeply involved in the general cause and the specific mission—to secure the freedom of Walker’s mother and her children. Nathans’s account is full of twists and turns, as efforts to free the family are thwarted and Mary’s son makes his own escape. The intimacy achieved through the use of letters between friends and family is remarkable; here is history lived in an ordinary household. The center, however, is held by Mary Walker’s crusade, accompanied as it is by the Lesleys’ own evolution; Susan finds ‘her work in the world,’ and Peter moves from antislavery to abolition. Nathans has transformed the paraphernalia of academia (ploughing through archives, thorough documentation, guarded speculation) into a book that will entrance the general reader, inform the scholar, and engage both.
-- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A remarkable story by a master storyteller, To Free a Family takes us inside the exhilarating and heartbreaking world of those fugitives whose escape from slavery required a separation from family and friends. Nathans brilliantly narrates a neglected area of the black experience.
-- Ira Berlin, author of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in Mainland North America
A refreshingly unique portrait not only of a fugitive slave, but also of her complex relations with both her enslavers and with Northern abolitionists who befriended her. Nathans has discovered a remarkable woman, and he has made her as memorable as she was to those who knew and loved her in life.
-- Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America
In this brilliant biography, Nathans offers an incomparable view into the stresses that escaped slaves had to endure, and he provides a wonderful prism through which to view the dilemmas of race and self-fulfillment that accompanied the long march to freedom.
-- William H. Chafe, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Century
To Free a Family is a brilliant book, a poignant and elegantly told story of an ordinary fugitive, Mary Walker, whom Nathans has beautifully, vividly brought to life. A true pleasure to read.
-- John Stauffer, author of The Black Hearts of Men and Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
To Free a Family puts names and faces on the historic black struggle to reunite families broken by slavery. Well written and beautifully researched, it is a triumph.
-- Jean Fagan Yellin, author of Harriet Jacobs: A Life
Offers a poignant, personal portrait that shows the perils of emancipation and freedom in the nineteenth century…Nathans' portrait of Mary Walker, a fugitive slave, is a masterful work by an accomplished historian. To Free a Family is a wonderful read that deftly navigates the demands of rigorous historical insight while also providing a compelling narrative.
-- Kevin Vrevich Historical Journal of Massachusetts