The story

The Little-Known Underground Railroad That Ran South to Mexico


The Underground Railroad ran south as well as north. Fortunately, slavery was also illegal in Mexico.

Researchers estimate 5,000 to 10,000 people escaped from bondage into Mexico, says Maria Hammack, who is writing her dissertation about this topic at the University of Texas at Austin. But she thinks the actual number could be even higher.

“These were clandestine routes and if you got caught you would be killed and lynched, so most people didn’t leave a lot of records,” says Hammack.

There’s some evidence that tejanos, or Mexicans in Texas, acted as “conductors” on the southern route by helping people get to Mexico. In addition, Hammack has also identified a Black woman and two white men who helped enslaved workers escape and tried to find a home for them in Mexico.

Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 when Texas was still part of the country, in part prompting white, slave-holding immigrants to fight for independence in the Texas Revolution. Once they formed the Republic of Texas in 1836, they made slavery legal again, and it continued to be legal when Texas joined the U.S. as a state in 1845.

Enslaved people in Texas were aware that there was a country to the south where they could find different levels of freedom (though indentured debt servitude existed in Mexico, it was not the same as chattel slavery). Hammack has discovered one runaway named Tom who had been enslaved by Sam Houston. Houston was a president of the Republic of Texas who’d fought in the Texas Revolution. Once Tom got across the border, he joined the Mexican military that Houston had fought against.

Fugitive enslaved people got to Mexico in many different ways. Some went on foot, while others rode horses or snuck aboard ferries bound for Mexican ports. Stories spread about enslaved people who crossed the Rio Grande river dividing Texas from Mexico by floating on bales of cotton, and several Texas newspapers reported in July 1863 that three enslaved people had escaped this way. Even if this wasn’t logistically possible, the imagery of floating to freedom on a symbol of slavery was strong.

READ MORE: How the Underground Railroad Worked

But it wasn’t only enslaved people in Texas who found freedom in Mexico. “I have found individuals who made it all the way from North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama,” Hammack says.

Slaveholders knew that enslaved people were escaping to Mexico, and the U.S. tried to get Mexico to sign a fugitive slave treaty. Just as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had compelled free states to return escapees to the south, the U.S. wanted Mexico to return escaped enslaved people to the U.S. But Mexico refused to sign such a treaty, insisting that all enslaved people were free when they set foot on Mexican soil. Despite this, some U.S. owners of enslaved people still hired slave catchers to illegally kidnap escapees in Mexico.

It’s unclear how organized the southern “underground railroad” was. Hammack says some enslaved people may have found their way to Mexico without assistance. Other evidence suggests tejanos, especially poor tejanos, played a part in helping escapees get to Mexico.

Hammack and researcher Roseann Bacha-Garza have also identified a mixed-race family from Alabama who moved to southern Texas near the Rio Grande and helped enslaved people escape to Mexico. The wife, Matilda Hicks, was a formerly enslaved woman. Her husband, Nathaniel Jackson, was the son of the man whose plantation she used to work on.

In addition, some northern abolitionists traveled south to help enslaved people reach Mexico.

“I have come across abolitionists from the north who were going to Mexico to petition Mexico to allow them to buy land to establish colonies for runaway slaves and free blacks,” Hammack says. In the early 1830s, Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lundy “was actively petitioning the Mexican government to allow for colonies to be established for, I guess what we would consider now, refugees.”

Lundy’s plan to start a free colony in Mexico’s Texas region was thwarted when it separated from Mexico and legalized slavery. Later, in 1852, Seminole groups that included runaway enslaved people successfully petitioned the Mexican government for land. “It still belongs to their descendants and they still live there to this day in Mexico,” Hammack says.

These and other refugees fleeing slavery through the southern “underground railroad” all benefited from Mexico’s willingness to give them a safe haven.


Story of the Underground Railroad to Mexico gains attention

HOUSTON -- While researching U.S. Civil War history in South Texas, Roseann Bacha-Garza came across the two unique families of the Jacksons and the Webbers living along the Rio Grande. White men headed both families. Both of their wives were Black, emancipated slaves.

But Bacha-Garza, a historian, wondered what they were doing there in the mid-1800s.

As she dug into oral family histories, she heard an unexpected story. The two families' ranches served as a stop on the Underground Railroad to Mexico, descendants said. Across Texas and parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas, scholars and preservation advocates are working to piece together the story of a largely forgotten part of American history: a network that helped thousands of Black slaves escape to Mexico.

“It really made sense the more I read about it and the more I thought about it,” Bacha-Garza said of the secretive route.

Like the more well-known Underground Railroad to the north, which helped fugitive slaves flee to Northern states and Canada, the path in the opposite direction provided a pathway to freedom south of the border, historians say. Enslaved people in the Deep South took to this closer route through unforgiving forests then desert with the help of Mexican Americans, German immigrants, and biracial Black and white couples living along the Rio Grande. Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, a generation before President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

But just how organized the Underground Railroad to Mexico was and what happened to former slaves and those who helped them remains a mystery. Some archives have since been destroyed by fire. Sites connected to the route sit abandoned.

“It’s larger than most people realized,” Karl Jacoby, co-director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, said of the route.

Slave owners took out newspaper ads offering rewards and complaining that their “property” was likely heading to Mexico, Jacoby said. White Texans banished Mexican Americans from towns after accusing them of helping slaves escape.

Slave-catching mobs ventured into Mexico only to face armed resistance in small villages and from Black Seminoles — or Los Mascogos — who had resettled in northern Mexico, said Jacoby, author of “The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire.”

Escaped slaves adopted Spanish names, married into Mexican families and migrated deeper into Mexico — disappearing from the record and history.

Historians have known about the secretive path for years. “ The Texas Runaway Slave Project ” at Stephen F. Austin State University includes a database of runaway slave advertisements that detail the extent of the trail. The Federal Writers' Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration gathered stories as part of its Slave Narrative Collection, including ones from former slaves openly talking about the Underground Railroad to Mexico. Former Texas slave Felix Haywood told those interviewed in 1936, for example, that slaves would laugh at the suggestion they should run north for freedom.

“All we had to do was walk, but walk south, and we'd be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande,” Haywood said.

And in 2010, the U.S. National Park Service outlined a route from Natchitoches, Louisiana, through Texas to Monclova, Mexico, that could be considered a rough path of the Underground Railroad south. A bill that President George W. Bush signed six years earlier designated El Camino Real de los Tejas as a National Historic Trail and encouraged the development of partnerships to create more understanding around this overlooked freedom road.

But this Underground Railroad is just starting to enter the public's consciousness as the U.S. becomes more diverse and more people show an interest in studying slavery, said Bacha-Garza, a program manager for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley's Community Historical Archaeology Project with Schools in Edinburg, Texas.

Bacha-Garza said Nathaniel Jackson, a white southerner, purchased the freedom of Matilda Hicks, a Black slave who was his childhood sweetheart, as well as Hicks' family. Jackson married Hicks and moved from Alabama to Texas before the U.S. Civil War. There, along the Rio Grande, they encountered another biracial couple, Vermont-born John Ferdinand Webber and Silvia Hector, who was Black and also a former slave.

The examination of the Underground Railroad to Mexico comes as the U.S. is undergoing a racial reckoning around policing and systemic racism. Also, this year Mexico counted its Afro-Mexican population as its own category for the first time in its census.

Over the last 50 years, the fields of African American and Chicano Studies have boomed with groundbreaking research and new work redefining the U.S. experience. But rarely do the two fields interact beyond 20th century civil rights tensions, said Ron Wilkins, a recently retired Africana Studies and History professor from California State University, Dominguez Hills.

And as a result, stories about African Americans and Mexican Americans working together to fight racism are not shared, Wilkins said, including the history of the Underground Railroad to Mexico.

“If we knew this history, we would come together and strengthen that solidarity,” said Wilkins, a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Some Mexican American families are finding themselves having uncomfortable conversations about race in the wake of their newfound awareness of the Underground Railroad to Mexico. Ramiro Ramirez, 72, a psychologist, rancher and descendant of the Jacksons, said family members often argued among each other when they found out Matilda Jackson was a former slave and they had “Black blood.”

“I was very proud. But I was also very angry,” said Ramirez, who lives in the border city of Mercedes, Texas. “Even after 200 years, racism is very strong. People don't want to talk about it.”

He said he’d like to meet the descendants of the slaves who, with his family's help, escaped to Mexico. He pictures them looking a lot like him, but with different lives south of the border.


Underground Railroad to Mexico: The other escape route from slavery

HOUSTON (AP)—While researching U.S. Civil War history in South Texas, Roseann Bacha-Garza came across the two unique families of the Jacksons and the Webbers living along the Rio Grande. White men headed both families. Both of their wives were Black, emancipated slaves. But Bacha-Garza, a historian, wondered what they were doing there in the mid-1800s.

As she dug into oral family histories, she heard an unexpected story. The two families’ ranches served as a stop on the Underground Railroad to Mexico, descendants said. Across Texas and parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas, scholars and preservation advocates are working to piece together the story of a largely forgotten part of American history: a network that helped thousands of Black slaves escape to Mexico.

“It really made sense the more I read about it and the more I thought about it,” Bacha-Garza said of the secretive route.

In this Sept. 27, 2017 photo, Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition president Dorris Ellis Robinson, right, and Catherine Roberts, left, look over a model of Freedmen’s Town, an area built by emancipated slaves after the Civil War, in Houston. The area is believed to have been connected to the Underground Railroad to Mexico. | Russell Contreras / AP

Like the more well-known Underground Railroad to the north, which helped fugitive slaves flee to Northern states and Canada, the path in the opposite direction provided a pathway to freedom south of the border, historians say. Enslaved people in the Deep South took to this closer route through unforgiving forests then desert with the help of Mexican Americans, German immigrants, and interracial Black and white couples living along the Rio Grande. Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, a generation before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

But just how organized the Underground Railroad to Mexico was and what happened to former slaves and those who helped them remains a mystery. Some archives have since been destroyed by fire. Sites connected to the route sit abandoned.

“It’s larger than most people realized,” Karl Jacoby, co-director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, said of the route.

Slave owners took out newspaper ads offering rewards and complaining that their “property” was likely heading to Mexico, Jacoby said. White Texans banished Mexican Americans from towns after accusing them of helping slaves escape.

Slave-catching mobs ventured into Mexico only to face armed resistance in small villages and from Black Seminoles—or Los Mascogos—who had resettled in northern Mexico, said Jacoby, author of The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire.

Escaped slaves adopted Spanish names, married into Mexican families, and migrated deeper into Mexico—disappearing from the record and history.

Historians have known about the secretive path for years. “The Texas Runaway Slave Project ” at Stephen F. Austin State University includes a database of runaway slave advertisements that detail the extent of the trail. The Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration gathered stories as part of its Slave Narrative Collection, including ones from former slaves openly talking about the Underground Railroad to Mexico. Former Texas slave Felix Haywood told those interviewed in 1936, for example, that slaves would laugh at the suggestion they should run north for freedom.

“All we had to do was walk, but walk south, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande,” Haywood said.

And in 2010, the U.S. National Park Service outlined a route from Natchitoches, Louisiana, through Texas to Monclova, Mexico, that could be considered a rough path of the Underground Railroad south. A bill that President George W. Bush signed six years earlier designated El Camino Real de los Tejas as a National Historic Trail and encouraged the development of partnerships to create more understanding around this overlooked freedom road.

But this Underground Railroad is just starting to enter the public’s consciousness as the U.S. becomes more diverse and more people show an interest in studying slavery, said Bacha-Garza, a program manager for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Community Historical Archaeology Project with Schools in Edinburg, Texas.

Bacha-Garza said Nathaniel Jackson, a white southerner, purchased the freedom of Matilda Hicks, a Black slave who was his childhood sweetheart, as well as Hicks’ family. Jackson married Hicks and moved from Alabama to Texas before the U.S. Civil War. There, along the Rio Grande, they encountered another interracial couple, Vermont-born John Ferdinand Webber and Silvia Hector, who was Black and also a former slave.

The examination of the Underground Railroad to Mexico comes as the U.S. is undergoing a racial reckoning around policing and systemic racism. Also, this year Mexico counted its Afro-Mexican population as its own category for the first time in its census.

Over the last 50 years, the fields of African American and Chicano Studies have boomed with groundbreaking research and new work redefining the U.S. experience. But rarely do the two fields interact beyond 20th-century civil rights tensions, said Ron Wilkins, a recently retired Africana Studies and History professor from California State University, Dominguez Hills.

In this Sept. 27, 2017 photo are the cobblestone streets of Freedmen’s Town, an area built by emancipated slaves after the Civil War in Houston. The area is believed to have been connected to the Underground Railroad to Mexico. | Russell Contreras / AP

And as a result, stories about African Americans and Mexican Americans working together to fight racism are not shared, Wilkins said, including the history of the Underground Railroad to Mexico.

“If we knew this history, we would come together and strengthen that solidarity,” said Wilkins, a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Some Mexican American families are finding themselves having uncomfortable conversations about race in the wake of their newfound awareness of the Underground Railroad to Mexico. Ramiro Ramirez, 72, a psychologist, rancher, and descendant of the Jacksons, said family members often argued among each other when they found out Matilda Jackson was a former slave and they had “Black blood.”

“I was very proud. But I was also very angry,” said Ramirez, who lives in the border city of Mercedes, Texas. “Even after 200 years, racism is very strong. People don’t want to talk about it.”

He said he’d like to meet the descendants of the slaves who, with his family’s help, escaped to Mexico. He pictures them looking a lot like him, but with different lives south of the border.


HISTORY FACT: 1st Underground Railroad Ran SOUTH For 100-Plus Years

CHARLESTON, S.C. — While most Americans are familiar with the Underground Railroad that helped Southern slaves escape north before the Civil War, the nation’s first clandestine path to freedom ran for more than a century in the opposite direction.

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Stories of that lesser-known “railroad” will be shared June 20-24 at the National Underground Railroad Conference in St. Augustine, Fla. The network of sympathizers gave refuge to those fleeing their masters, including many American Indians who helped slaves escape to what was then the Spanish territory of Florida. That lasted from shortly after the founding of Carolina Colony in 1670 to after the American Revolution.

They escaped not only to the South but to Mexico, the Caribbean and the American West.

And the “railroad” helps to explain at least in part why the lasting culture of slave descendants – known as Gullah in South Carolina and Geechee in Florida and Georgia – exists along the northeastern Florida coast.

“It’s a fascinating story and most people in America are stuck – they are either stuck on 1964 and the Civil Rights Act or they are stuck on the Civil War,” said Derek Hankerson, who is a Gullah descendant and a small business owner in St. Augustine, Fla. “We have been hankering to share these stories.”

Because there are few records, it’s unknown how many African slaves may have escaped along the railroad. But the dream of freedom in Florida did play a role in the 1739 Stono Rebellion outside Charleston, the largest slave revolt in British North America.

Slaves likely started fleeing toward Florida when South Carolina was established in 1670, said Jane Landers, a Vanderbilt University historian who has researched the subject extensively. The first mention of escaped slaves in Spanish records was in 1687 when eight slaves, including a nursing baby, showed up in St. Augustine.

Spain refuses to return them and instead gives them religious sanctuary, and that policy is formalized in 1693. The only condition is that those seeking sanctuary convert to Catholicism.

“It was a total shift in the geopolitics of the Caribbean and after that anyone who leaves a Protestant area to request sanctuary gets it,” Landers said.

That promise of freedom played an important role in the Stono Rebellion, when a group of about 20 slaves raided a store, collecting guns and other weapons, in September 1739.

Mark Smith, a historian at the University of South Carolina, said the slave leaders were from what is now Angola in Africa. They were Catholic, because their homeland was at the time a Portuguese outpost. And they are thought to have been soldiers in their native land.

They would have known about the rumor of freedom in Spanish Florida and decide to start the revolt on Sept. 9, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“They have a white flag, which is not a flag of surrender. It’s a flag of celebrating Mary, and they shout `Liberty.’ They are not revolting just as slaves, but as Catholic slaves,” Smith said.

At least 20 whites were killed in the rebellion. The militia later caught up with the slaves and 34 of them were killed. Some who escaped were found and executed later, although some apparently made it to safety in Florida because there are reports of more slaves arriving in St. Augustine in the ensuing days, Landers said.

Gullah creole is still spoken in churches in northeastern Florida, Landers said.

Hankerson, who grew up with stories of the Underground Railroad, said escaped slaves got help from American Indian tribes including the Creeks, the Cherokees and the Yemassee. They also advanced deeper into Florida and found refuge with the Seminoles.

Except for about 20 years when the British held St. Augustine between the end of the French and Indian War and the end of the American Revolution, the Spanish policy of sanctuary remained in effect until 1790 when Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson convinced the Spanish crown to end it. Many runaways escaped amid the chaos and violence of the revolution, and keeping that corridor open could have drained the Southern colonies of slaves, Landers said.

Unlike the Underground Railroad going north, the early network was more informal: Neither the slaves nor the indigenous tribes that helped them left written records, and there was no church structure like the Quakers organizing the effort, Landers said. It’s unknown exactly how many stayed among the American Indians or how many died.

The British saw slaves as property and labor for their plantations and offered rewards for their return.

By contrast, Landers said, “the Spanish believe the indigenous people and Africans could be converted and as such were humans and had families and souls to save.”


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The Fugitive Slave, painted by John Adam Houston.

The Underground Railroad ran south as well as north. For slaves in Texas, refuge in Canada must have seemed impossibly far away. Fortunately, slavery was also illegal in Mexico.

Researchers estimate 5,000 to 10,000 people escaped from bondage into Mexico, says Maria Hammack, who is writing her dissertation about this topic at the University of Texas at Austin. But she thinks the actual number could be even higher.

“These were clandestine routes and if you got caught you would be killed and lynched, so most people didn’t leave a lot of records,” says Hammack.

There’s some evidence that tejanos, or Mexicans in Texas, acted as “conductors” on the southern route by helping people get to Mexico. In addition, Hammack has also identified a black woman and two white men who helped enslaved workers escape and tried to find a home for them in Mexico.


A slave auction in Austin, Texas.

Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 when Texas was still part of the country, prompting white, slave-holding immigrants to fight for independence in the Texas Revolution. Once they formed the Republic of Texas in 1836, they made slavery legal again, and it continued to be legal when Texas joined the U.S. as a state in 1845.

Enslaved people in Texas were aware that there was a country to the south where they could find different levels of freedom (though indentured servitude existed in Mexico, it was not the same as chattel slavery). Hammack has discovered one runaway named Tom who had been enslaved by Sam Houston. Houston was a president of the Republic of Texas who’d fought in the Texas Revolution. Once Tom got across the border, he joined the Mexican military that Houston had fought against.

Enslaved people got to Mexico in many different ways. Some went on foot, while others rode horses or snuck aboard ferries bound for Mexican ports. Stories spread about enslaved people who crossed the Rio Grande river dividing Texas from Mexico by floating on bales of cotton, and several Texas newspapers reported in July 1863 that three enslaved people had escaped this way. Even if this wasn’t logistically possible, the imagery of floating to freedom on a symbol of slavery was strong.

Fugitive Slave Acts (TV-PG 1:57)

But it wasn’t only enslaved people in Texas who found freedom in Mexico. …read more


South to Freedom

The Underground Railroad also ran south—not back toward slave-owning states but away from them to Mexico, which began to restrict slavery in the 1820s and finally abolished it in 1829, some thirty-four years before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

This may be history, but it comes as news to many attending the exhibition “Pathways to Freedom” at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African History, on view through March 31. “Most people are surprised,” says Patrina Chatman, the museum’s curator of exhibitions. While there is abundant documentation, not to mention folklore, pertaining to the network of guides and sanctuaries that helped enslaved people escape to freedom in northern states and Canada, the record is less abundant concerning the Underground Railroad that led to Mexico.

“Those stories were not told,” says Patricia Ann Talley, “because those stories ended up in Spanish.” But even in Mexico the stories aren’t widely known, continues Talley, a Detroit native and African American who lives in Mexico and who initiated the “Pathways to Freedom” exhibition with Candelaria Donaji Mendez Tello, an Afro-Mexican. The two met at a peace festival in Mexico in 2010 and became friends. Until then, says Talley, “I never thought about Afro-Mexicans.” The exhibition, funded in part by the Michigan Humanities Council, emphasizes the shared experiences and history of black Americans and black Mexicans. “I did not realize,” Talley says, “how abundant the African race is in Mexico,” but she soon learned that even more Africans were brought as slaves to colonial Mexico than were brought to colonial America.

With slavery came the desire for freedom, and that’s where the narrative of “Pathways to Freedom” turns, adjusting its lens toward Mexico. “When I hear the term ‘Underground Railroad’ applied, I don’t complain,” says historian Sean M. Kelley, “but it wasn’t anywhere near as well organized” as the better-known operation that led to Canada. Kelley, associate professor of history at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, has written about slavery along the Texas-Mexico border.

Escape routes to Mexico “were known among slaves in Texas,” Kelley says, and so was the political reality that “there’s this other republic and they’ve gotten rid of slavery.” Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 after a lengthy rebellion and began passing measures against slavery, finally outlawing it in 1829 by decree of then-president Vicente Guerrero, who may himself have been of African ancestry.

Although Mexico outlawed slavery, Texas, then a colony of Mexico, held onto its slaves. In fact, slavery was one of the causes of the revolution that led to Texas’s independence in 1836. Texas was admitted to the United States in 1845 as a slave state and the number of slaves there increased exponentially.

Most of the slaves who escaped to Mexico came from Texas, and to a lesser extent Louisiana, Kelley notes, just as a preponderance of those who escaped northward came from places neighboring northern states. The journey to freedom in Mexico, even from Texas, was “long and difficult and dangerous,” Kelley says. Just as there are no firm figures about how many enslaved people escaped to Canada—estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000—no reliable figures exist concerning how many escaped to Mexico. A Texas Ranger in the nineteenth century put the number at four thousand but “quantifying this is never going to happen,” Kelley says.

The Underground Railroad that led to Mexico had no known analogue to Harriet Tubman, a former slave, who in a dozen journeys led some seventy people to freedom, but Texas had its own liberators. “There was complicity on the part of Tejanos [Hispanic Texans] and some of the Germans” who had settled in Texas, Kelley says.

And whether in Spanish or English, the Southwest’s version of the Underground Railroad produced at least one unforgettable tale: the story of the man who floated to freedom across the Rio Grande on a bale of cotton. Kelley questions it (“I don’t even know if cotton floats”) but finds the account “significant beyond” any authentication. “The story exists, it means something,” he says, that a man could sail to freedom on the very commodity that engendered his enslavement.

Martin Kohn is a writer, theater critic, editor, singer-guitarist, and a journalism teacher at Michigan State University.


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

Roseann Bacha-Garza (left), a borderlands historian, stands with Olga Webber-Vasques at the grave of the latter's great-great-grandfather, the abolitionist John Ferdinand Webber, in the family cemetery. John Burnett/NPR hide caption

Roseann Bacha-Garza (left), a borderlands historian, stands with Olga Webber-Vasques at the grave of the latter's great-great-grandfather, the abolitionist John Ferdinand Webber, in the family cemetery.

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 hide caption

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.

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 hide caption

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."

"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.

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"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 hide caption

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.

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 hide caption

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 hide caption

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.

"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.

"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."


Myth Battles Counter-Myth

The appeal of romance and fancy in stories of the Underground Railroad can be traced to the latter decades of the 19th century, when the South was winning the battle of popular memory over the meaning of the Civil War — sending Lost Cause mythology deep into the national psyche and eventually helping to propel the Virginia-born racist Woodrow Wilson into the White House. In the face of a dominating Southern interpretation of the meaning of the Civil War, many white Northerners sought to preserve a heroic version of their past and found a useful tool in legends of the Underground Railroad.

Often well-meaning white people crafted “romantic adventure stories — about themselves,” as Blight puts it, stories that placed white “conductors” in heroic and romantic roles in the struggle for black freedom, stealing agency from supposedly helpless and nameless African Americans (who braved the real dangers), a counterpart to popular images of a saintly, erect Abraham Lincoln bequeathing freedom to passive, kneeling slaves. With the collapse of Reconstruction in 1876 — often blamed on supposedly ignorant or corrupt black people — the winning of freedom became a tale of noble, selfless white efforts on behalf of a downtrodden, faceless, nameless, “inferior” race.

Much of contemporary misunderstanding and myth about the Underground Railroad originated with Wilbur Siebert’s 1898 study. Siebert interviewed nearly everyone still living who had some memory related to the network and even traveled to Canada to interview former slaves who traced their own routes from the South to freedom.

While Siebert ignored the most fanciful stories he heard, he placed far too much emphasis on the work of so-called white conductors and depicted the experience as a very systematic and interrelated series of way stations and routes — which he traced in detailed maps — not unlike a railroad line or system of rail lines. As David Blight remarks, Siebert “fashioned a popular story of primarily white conductors helping nameless blacks to freedom.”


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 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.

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.

"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."

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."

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.

"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.

"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."

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.


Story of the Underground Railroad to Mexico gains attention

HOUSTON — While researching U.S. Civil War history in South Texas, Roseann Bacha-Garza came across the two unique families of the Jacksons and the Webbers living along the Rio Grande. White men headed both families. Both of their wives were Black, emancipated slaves.

But Bacha-Garza, a historian, wondered what they were doing there in the mid-1800s.

As she dug into oral family histories, she heard an unexpected story. The two families' ranches served as a stop on the Underground Railroad to Mexico, descendants said. Across Texas and parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas, scholars and preservation advocates are working to piece together the story of a largely forgotten part of American history: a network that helped thousands of Black slaves escape to Mexico.

“It really made sense the more I read about it and the more I thought about it,” Bacha-Garza said of the secretive route.

Like the more well-known Underground Railroad to the North, which helped fugitive slaves flee to Northern states and Canada, the path in the opposite direction provided a pathway to freedom south of the border, historians say. Enslaved people in the Deep South took to this closer route through unforgiving forests then desert with the help of Mexican Americans, German immigrants, and biracial Black and white couples living along the Rio Grande. Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, a generation before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

But just how organized the Underground Railroad to Mexico was and what happened to former slaves and those who helped them remains a mystery. Some archives have since been destroyed by fire. Sites connected to the route sit abandoned.

“It’s larger than most people realized,” Karl Jacoby, co-director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, said of the route.

Slave owners took out newspaper ads offering rewards and complaining that their “property” was likely heading to Mexico, Jacoby said. White Texans banished Mexican Americans from towns after accusing them of helping slaves escape.

Slave-catching mobs ventured into Mexico only to face armed resistance in small villages and from Black Seminoles — or Los Mascogos — who had resettled in northern Mexico, said Jacoby, author of “The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire.”

Escaped slaves adopted Spanish names, married into Mexican families and migrated deeper into Mexico — disappearing from the record and history.

Historians have known about the secretive path for years. “ The Texas Runaway Slave Project ” at Stephen F. Austin State University includes a database of runaway slave advertisements that detail the extent of the trail. The Federal Writers' Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration gathered stories as part of its Slave Narrative Collection, including ones from former slaves openly talking about the Underground Railroad to Mexico. Former Texas slave Felix Haywood told those interviewed in 1936, for example, that slaves would laugh at the suggestion they should run north for freedom.

“All we had to do was walk, but walk south, and we'd be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande,” Haywood said.

And in 2010, the U.S. National Park Service outlined a route from Natchitoches, Louisiana, through Texas to Monclova, Mexico, that could be considered a rough path of the Underground Railroad south. A bill that President George W. Bush signed six years earlier designated El Camino Real de los Tejas as a National Historic Trail and encouraged the development of partnerships to create more understanding around this overlooked freedom road.

But this Underground Railroad is just starting to enter the public's consciousness as the U.S. becomes more diverse and more people show an interest in studying slavery, said Bacha-Garza, a program manager for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley's Community Historical Archaeology Project with Schools in Edinburg, Texas.

Bacha-Garza said Nathaniel Jackson, a white southerner, purchased the freedom of Matilda Hicks, a Black slave who was his childhood sweetheart, as well as Hicks' family. Jackson married Hicks and moved from Alabama to Texas before the U.S. Civil War. There, along the Rio Grande, they encountered another biracial couple, Vermont-born John Ferdinand Webber and Silvia Hector, who was Black and also a former slave.

The examination of the Underground Railroad to Mexico comes as the U.S. is undergoing a racial reckoning around policing and systemic racism. Also, this year Mexico counted its Afro-Mexican population as its own category for the first time in its census.

Over the last 50 years, the fields of African American and Chicano Studies have boomed with groundbreaking research and new work redefining the U.S. experience. But rarely do the two fields interact beyond 20th century civil rights tensions, said Ron Wilkins, a recently retired Africana Studies and History professor from California State University, Dominguez Hills.

And as a result, stories about African Americans and Mexican Americans working together to fight racism are not shared, Wilkins said, including the history of the Underground Railroad to Mexico.


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