Ben Winter’s novel Underground Airlines opens in an America almost like our own, with the same smartphones, social networks, and Happy Meals. There’s just one crucial difference: in this novel, slavery is still legal in four states. How did this happen? Winters outlines the crucial events in this alternate timeline of American history.
Feb. 12, 1861: President-elect Abraham Lincoln is shot and killed on a hotel balcony in Indianapolis, en route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC to be inaugurated.
May 9, 1861: Congress passes the “Crittenden Compromise,” a package of resolutions and amendments narrowly avoiding a war between the states and permanently enshrining slavery in the American political system.
1898: Maryland passes legislation allowing for a periodic referendum on slavery, a model that will be adopted by several other states and territories.
March 4, 1934: President Franklin Roosevelt (over the objections of the remaining slave states), signs the federal Clean Hands bill, prohibiting the “possession, sale, or consumption” of slave-produced goods in any non-slave state or territory.
Autumn of 1942: In a successful effort to head off a ballot-box land rush like the one that turned Texas free, conservative lawmakers and power brokers in the states of North and South Carolina perform a set of legislative and electoral maneuvers, merging into one state, known simply as Carolina.
1944: President Truman claims a huge victory for the abolitionist movement, convincing Georgia and Kentucky to abolish slavery in exchange for lucrative wartime munitions contracts.
June 1964: The “Freedom Summer” brings busloads of abolitionist activists, black and white, into the heart of the slave-holding south to bear witness to conditions inside the new mega-plantations.
1964-1975: After Texas declares that it is seceding from the union, and President Johnson pronounces this illegal under the Constitution, the Gulf War erupts. Fought primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and along the East Texas coast, the conflict claims hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides, ending not in surrender but an uneasy detente.
Summer of 1972: The “Starman Revolt” in and around Asheville, Carolina is the largest slave uprising in modern history. The bloody revolt and its suppression, along with the lengthy manhunts that follow, lead to a raft of new “citizen protection enforcement” measures in the Southern states, and contribute to protracted, often bitter soul-searching among northern abolition movements, over the appropriateness of encouraging disobedience.
September 27, 1984: The latest reauthorization of the Fugitive Persons Law includes the Moore Amendment, exempting African American law-enforcement officers from its enforcement.