Mary Walker was a fourth generation slave owned by the Cameron family, one of the richest slave-owning families in the South. In addition to being rich, there was another feature that set the Camerons apart; they bought enslaved people as families and kept them together as families.
Many slaves would’ve resisted running away from such a family, but an argument with Duncan Hunter, the patriarch of the family, set Mary Walker on the path to freedom, according to Sydney Nathans’ inspiring book, To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker. It was a threat Cameron made to exile Walker from their North Carolina plantation to a plantation in Alabama that had been the impetus for Walker running away.
Knowing that she would be separated from her mother and children anyway, Walker decided to separate on her own terms. While accompanying the Cameron family’s invalid daughter to the doctor, Walker just walked away.
After Walker left, her son, described by the slave master’s son Paul Cameron as “so nearly white that with ninety five men in a hundred he will pass for a white man”, escaped as well. Duncan Hunter referred to them as “ungrateful pets”.
The Cameron plantation was described by one observer as being “full of proud half-breeds, neither properly enslaved nor fully freed”.
Walker absconded to Philadelphia, which had a strong support network of free black people who helped runaway slaves. The head of the underground railroad in Philadelphia became Walker’s friend and hid her with a neighbor across the street.
After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed and the Camerons relocated to within a quarter mile of where she lived, however, Mary Walker left for New England.
Walker was extremely fair-skinned with long hair, “almost
white”, as Nathans’ described her, which had a tremendous impact on those around her.
Minister Peter Lesley received a letter asking whether he would take in a runway slave and agreed. Lesley had preached against slavery in the pulpit so he and his wife Susan didn’t think twice about housing Walker.
Nathans’ research relies upon an extensive number of letters, a few of which were exchanged between Mary Walker and the Lesleys.
The letters revealed that Walker had become near-obsessed with reuniting with her family. With the help of the Lesleys, Walker had enlisted an abolitionist attorney, Ellis Gray Loring, as her guide.
Mary Walker wanted Loring to help negotiate the purchase of her family, but he refused, as Loring was opposed to enriching a slave owner in any case. Loring suggested that Mary Walker think of her family as dead.
Mary Walker suffered from depression due to the separation from her family and although some of her letters were found, much of what is known emerges from whites writing about Walker.
“One of the wonderful things about the collection is how often, and in what detail, they wrote about Mary Walker — what she said, what she thought and what she did. Mary Walker played a vital role in their lives, as they did in hers,” Nathans told The Denver Post in 2012.
Mary Walker later devised her own “covert” operation to get her children back (covered in depth in To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker ). Although the Lesleys helped Walker, their hospitality was limited, leading Walker to reject the idea of friendship “especially between different orders, races, and classes of humankind”.