A Chapter In U.S. History Often Ignored: The Flight Of Runaway Slaves To Mexico
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 here,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 forebearer, 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, there is new attention 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.
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 rarely given credit for its role in providing 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 persons 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 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, Texas.
"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, 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. It's 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.
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. They 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."
Back then, the borderlands were different from the rest of slave-holding 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 University in Nacogdoches, Texas. 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.
He pulls up on his computer and reads an item in the Galveston Weekly News from May 11, 1858. "$25 reward. Ran away on 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."
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.
Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836 and eventually joined the U.S. as a slave state. Mexico lost again in the U.S.-Mexican 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, slave-holding conquering nation and Mexico as this country that could actually stand upright before the civilized world for its antislavery 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 Maria 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 when she was growing up in Los Mochis in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, she never learned about the outsized role that her country played in Texas slavery.
"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 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 persons 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 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.
"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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