Political Underground Railroad

A new book by historian Steven Hahn takes up the hidden history of African American politics and the politics of writing history.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

By Peter Nichols

When Steven Hahn, the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor in American History, visited the New York Historical Society’s exhibit, Slavery in New York, several years ago, he was surprised by how surprised visitors were to discover New York’s long involvement with slavery. “Most were simply stunned,” he recounts in his new book, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom. They never knew how deeply embedded slavery was in the North and that it remained a national—not just Southern—institution right up to the Civil War.

Hahn is a specialist on the history of the American South, the history of the 19th-century United States, the international history of slavery and emancipation, and African American history. His book A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration won several prestigious awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.

His new book takes to task the deeply rooted slavery-to-freedom narrative that most of us learned in school. That story admits the centrality of slavery in U.S. history and celebrates emancipation, but it emphasizes the struggle for assimilation, integration and citizenship by generations of freed slaves. “I try to interrogate that narrative and suggest it is more complicated than we make it out to be,” Hahn says, “and that we ought to take the aspirations that don’t fit neatly into this narrative more seriously.”