Escape to the City

Fugitive Slaves in the Antebellum Urban South

By Viola Franziska Müller

262 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 4 halftones, 5 maps, 1 graph, 7 tables

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7106-2
    Published: October 2022
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7105-5
    Published: October 2022
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7107-9
    Published: September 2022
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6308-9
    Published: September 2022

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Awards & distinctions

Willie Lee Rose Prize, Southern Association for Women Historians

Viola Franziska Müller examines runaways who camouflaged themselves among the free Black populations in Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans, and Richmond. In the urban South, they found shelter, work, and other survival networks that enabled them to live in slaveholding territory, shielded and supported by their host communities in an act of collective resistance to slavery. While all fugitives risked their lives to escape slavery, those who fled to southern cities were perhaps the most vulnerable of all. Not dissimilar to modern-day refugees and illegal migrants, runaway slaves that sought refuge in the urban South were antebellum America's undocumented people, forging lives free from bondage but without the legal status of freedpeople. Spanning from the 1810s to the start of the Civil War, Müller reveals how urbanization, work opportunities, and the interconnectedness of free and enslaved Black people in each city determined how successfully runaways could remain invisible to authorities.

About the Author

Viola Franziska Müller is a social historian at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany.
For more information about Viola Franziska Müller, visit the Author Page.


"A fascinating exploration of the experiences of fugitives from slavery . . . . Escape to the City is an important contribution to the scholarship on slavery, labor, and urban life. Müller’s work is worthy of a wide audience."—Warren E. Milteer Jr., Journal of Southern History

Escape to the City offers a freshly interdisciplinary example of how urban history, labor history, immigration studies, legal history, and the study of slavery together can offer new ways of considering the experience of fugitive enslaved people in the antebellum period. . . . Standing as an interdisciplinary evaluation of the antebellum experience of enslaved people seeking freedom, [Müller’s work] is recommended to any scholar seeking to engage in new ways of considering freedom.”—North Carolina Historical Review

“A fascinating exploration of the experiences of fugitives from slavery. While most readers may think about the northern United States and Canada when considering most likely destinations for enslaved people in search of freedom, Müller convincingly demonstrates that the cities of the South were important sites of refuge for countless enslaved persons.”—Journal of Southern History

“Müller has provided a valuable resource for scholars of history at every level and should spark further exploration of the topic of unfreedom.”–Journal of American History

"A work of political economy at its best. Müller sets aside the traditional narrative of slavery to freedom and explores the mobility, networking, and labor of the runaway slaves who chose to stay in the South, focusing on how they lived and survived in a complex social environment."—R. J. M. Blackett, author of The Captive's Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery

"Through rigorous research, lucid prose, and striking tabulation, Müller plots new spatial approaches toward fugitive slaves' flight to antebellum southern cities that breathe life into these neglected historical actors through lived experiences, context of flight, and arresting comparison with contemporary refugees."—Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie, author of Rebellious Passage: The Creole Revolt and America's Coastal Slave Trade