Scott Shane is a Baltimore-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s worked for The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times.
And now Shane, who recently published his third book, is a bit of an amateur historian. His latest book, “Flee North: A Forgotten Hero and the Fight for Freedom in Slavery’s Borderland,” is about figures from pre-Civil War America.
It tells the story of Thomas Smallwood, a free Black shoemaker who worked with Charles Turner Torrey to transfer escaped slaves north from Baltimore to freedom.
In an interview, Shane talked about writing books about historical characters who are “operating against the background of colossal events in history.”
Shane’s previous books are about modern history: the fall of the Soviet Union and the war on terror. In an interview, Shane told The Banner he likes writing books where he can find people who really carry the story, and “characters who can reflect different elements of a story.”
We spoke with Shane to learn more about his process and what it feels like to transition from journalist to historian.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Can you remind me how you first encountered the story of Thomas Smallwood?
So the story really goes back 25 years, when I was a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, we’d been living in Baltimore about 10 years or so. I wish I remember exactly where but I came across somewhere, probably in an old book in the Pratt, the fact that there had been a thriving slave trade at the Inner Harbor for many, many years, and it was just so shocking to me that I started looking into it. And I gathered string for a long time, just in a computer file.
And as I was reading up on Charles Torrey, including a very good biography that was published in 2013. I saw references to Thomas Smallwood. And he was portrayed as essentially Torrey’s Black sidekick. And as I then dug into Smallwood, who had not had a biography written about him. You know, I gradually came to realize that it was very much the other way around, that Smallwood was sort of the key player in this operation, and that Torrey was his white sidekick.
So, what was it about kind of uncovering Smallwood, and learning all the history of this region and the slave trade, that coalesced into “Flee North”? Why this book?
I think one thing that intrigued me was that the mid-Atlantic, the Chesapeake region, was unusual in some respects. The fact that all the different social categories, social, racial, political categories, came together in a way they didn’t elsewhere, very dramatically in Baltimore and Washington. You had dedicated abolitionists, some of them publishers, some of the members of Congress. You had slaveholders who held power locally. You had enslaved African Americans. You had free African Americans. You had all these people kind of bumping up against each other in a way that they didn’t in the rest of the country. I found that fascinating.
And then when I come across Smallwood, it’s just like, the pieces fall into place in a way. You have the sort of geographical opposition of people being shipped south against their will, and people running north with a will and, you have these characters [from history] who represent those two things.
You have two previous books, which cover topics from more recent history — topics that you reported on in real-time or at least lived through. But for this book, you’re literally digging through a warehouse, doing historical research. How was this similar and different to previous work you’ve done?
Well, it’s the first time I’ve done history. Although in a sense, what I did for 40 years, what you do every day is also history. It’s recent history, right? You’re always saying “yesterday.” You’re looking back and trying to make sense of things that have already occurred.
But obviously, there’s a difference when they occurred 180 years ago. And so I guess the biggest difference, as a journalist, particularly as a national security journalist, there are people who know stuff. And the problem is getting them to talk. Writing this kind of history, there are people who knew stuff, and they’re all dead.
But I suppose ... the overlap is in documents. Because often in journalism, because people won’t talk or they’re lying to you, or whatever, you try to dig up the documents and piece together the story from paper or from pixels. And, in this case, you are also working with documents. I mean, there are a lot of archival documents that were important to this story. And then tons of old newspapers. It’s amazing.
I went this morning and looked at the Wikipedia page for Thomas Smallwood. And more than half of the references at the bottom of the page are to your book, to “Flee North.” That’s a direct impact, that’s a direct result of your book. What’s that feel like to you?
I refer to this as dumb luck in the appropriate term. But it is one of the gratifying parts of writing this book that it will start the process of giving this guy his due.
I do have the fantasy of like, you know, bringing back Thomas Smallwood, you know, handing the book and just saying, you know, “Job well done.”
One of my favorite details you discuss in the book is that Smallwood would make sure the subjects of his columns, people he’s criticizing, saw those columns. So, you know, in your career as a journalist, is that something you’ve ever done?
I think I was a chicken [laughs].
I think I would be a little more inclined to send sort of the complimentary stories, or whatever. Or the the more neutral ones. The ones that were, you know, exposing people as scumbags, I think I was, I was maybe a little shy about sending their way. So you gotta hand it to him [Smallwood].