The route north from Mexico to the U.S. border is well trodden and now prominent in our national conversation. But the research of one TCNJ professor illuminates some lesser-known American History involving people heading south over that boundary seeking freedom.
Mekala Audain, assistant professor of history, is one of a handful of scholars who studies the flight of fugitive slaves from Texas to Mexico, where slavery was abolished in 1829 – more than three decades before it was outlawed in the U.S.
“It’s interesting to see how the border functions,” says Audain. “In the 19th century the border was meant to keep black people in, now it’s meant to keep Latin American people out.”
The path south is lesser known than the Underground Railroad that took fugitive slaves to the northern states and Canada. In the 1850s, it was estimated that more than 4,000 slaves, mostly men in their prime, escaped to Mexico, said Audain.
Her research led her to advertisements for runaways — often the only written record of slaves’ lives — placed in and around Texas prior to the Civil War. Texas became independent of Mexico, forming a republic in 1836 and then joining United States in 1845 — moves that again enabled slave holding in the territory.
Audain says runaways heading south typically traveled a minimum of 300–400 miles through the inhospitable southwestern desert, often chased and sometimes met by slave catchers at the border. The trek was less organized, and often more circuitous, than the northward Underground Railroad, although sometimes the fugitives did find help along the way, she said.
“There was definitely a biblical element to this wandering the desert and finding freedom,” says Audain, a native of South Carolina. The subject matter was part of her dissertation for her PhD in history from Rutgers University.
Audain was a fellow at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice before coming to TCNJ in 2015. She has continued her research — directing two students studying the topic in a Mentored Undergraduate Summer Research project — and is working on a book manuscript titled, Mexican Canaan: Fugitive Slave Escapes to Spanish Texas and Northeastern Mexico, 1804–1865.