port of harlem magazine
ivan brown realty
Reverse Underground Railroad

May 18 – May 31, 2023
dr steven bell


Philadelphia, 1825: five young, free Black boys fall into the clutches of the most fearsome gang of kidnappers and slavers in the United States. Lured onto a small ship with the promise of food and pay, they are instead met with blindfolds, ropes, and knives. Over four long months, their kidnappers drive them overland into the Cotton Kingdom to be sold as slaves. Determined to resist, the boys form a tight brotherhood as they struggle to free themselves and find their way home.

Their ordeal - an odyssey that takes them from the Philadelphia waterfront to the marshes of Mississippi and then onward still - shines a glaring spotlight on the Reverse Underground Railroad, a black market network of human traffickers and slave traders who stole away thousands of legally free African Americans from their families in order to fuel slavery’s rapid expansion in the decades before the Civil War.


Cornelius Sinclair was ten years old and he was trapped. He was stuck in the belly of a small ship bobbing in the middle of the Delaware River, a mile south of Philadelphia. A man had grabbed him from a spot near that city’s market an hour ago, shoved a gag across his mouth, tossed him into a wagon, and hauled him here.

It was dark below the waterline, but Cornelius could see enough to know that he was not alone. Four pairs of eyes stared back at him - four other African American boys.
The (free American) people these kidnappers stole could fetch anywhere from $400 to $700 ($9,000 to $15,000 today) in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, three of the new territories and states rising up along the Gulf Coast.
Yesterday they had all been free. Today they were slaves, prisoners of a gang of child snatchers who planned to sell their lives and labor, most likely to plantation owners in the Deep South. If their abductors got away with this, Cornelius would spend the rest of his life as someone else’s property somewhere very far away. He would never see his family again.

Cornelius disappeared from Philadelphia in late August 1825, about nine months short of the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in that city in the summer of 1776. So much had changed since then. The new nation’s population had tripled, topping ten million, its land area had more than doubled, and the number of states in the union had jumped from thirteen to twenty-four, all of them now latticed together by ever-expanding networks of roads, canals, and steamboat routes.

Slavery in America was changing too. In 1776, there had been enslaved people in every rebel colony, but by 1825, slavery was dead or dying in the North. Fewer than twenty thousand Black northerners remained in bondage, most of them in rural parts of New Jersey and New York where slavery was on its last legs. In the South, it was a different story. Slavery remained profitable and popular there, and more than 1.75 million Black southerners lived as slaves. Assuming office in March 1825, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, presided over a union equally divided between free states and slave states, twelve of them apiece. The Mason-Dixon Line, which separated Maryland and Delaware-two slave states - from Pennsylvania - a free state - seemed to split the nation in two. It served, in the words of its recent biographer, as the closest thing to a modern international border anywhere in North America.

Situated just forty miles north of that border, Philadelphia was the nearest free city to the slave South. That proximity made its many free Black residents attractive targets for professional people snatchers from the slave states. They preyed on the members of the city’s Black community relentlessly, putting bull’s-eyes on their backs and prices on their heads. Cornelius was one of dozens of African American children to vanish from Philadelphia in 1825 alone. By then, the city was without question the hub of American slavery’s newest and blackest market. Its gridded streets and tangled alleys were hunting grounds for crews of professional kidnappers who made their livings turning free Black folk like Cornelius into southern slaves. Philadelphia had long had a reputation as a safe haven for people of color, and was home to the headquarters of the American antislavery movement. But it was probably one of the most dangerous places to be Black anywhere in the United States.

The people these kidnappers stole could fetch anywhere from $400 to $700 ($9,000 to $15,000 today) in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, three of the new territories and states rising up along the Gulf Coast. The American settlers swarming into that region demanded a bottomless supply of slave labor to cut sugarcane and pick cotton and would take almost anyone-including children as young as ten-year-old Cornelius. They may not have liked buying some of their slaves from kidnappers, but planters in the Deep South had few other options. They had been forced to look to sources within the United States for their labor needs ever since 1808, when lawmakers in Washington had outlawed slave imports from Africa and the Caribbean - a major turning point in the history of slavery in America. Interstate slave traders worked hard to satisfy these settlers’ demand for Black labor, bringing them thousands of American-born slaves each year from states like Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, but settlers across the Deep South always wanted more.

The more they were willing to pay, the more tempting and profitable it became for unscrupulous entrepreneurs to try to kidnap free people from northern cities, smuggle them into the legal supply chain, and sell them in this vast new southern slave market. These incentives left Philadelphia’s large and dynamic Black community dangerously exposed, and by 1825, the city had become the center of an interregional kidnapping operation, the northern terminus of what we might usefully call the Reverse Underground Railroad.
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