Published: Feb. 11, 2021 By

Scholar reflects on time and mentorship at CU Boulder while writing acclaimed new book on the road to the Civil War

One year out of college, Alice Baumgartner was working at a free medical clinic in rural Bolivia, where she heard stories from her patients about a devastating war during the 1930s that killed one-third of the men in the territory. 

“It was the first time in my life when history was not just interesting, but important to people,” says Baumgartner, who was at the time considering a career in medicine. “I began to think that maybe this (history) is something I want to pursue professionally.”

Today, Baumgartner has a PhD in history from Yale University and is an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern California. She is also the author of the new book, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War.

Time spent at Yale, as well as the University of Oxford where she was a Rhodes Scholar, taught her well, she says, but it was her fellowship year at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center of the American West in 2017 with her mentor, Professor of History Patricia Limerick, which shaped her teaching style in the classroom today.

“Patty is such an inventive teacher,” Baumgartner says. “She expanded my horizons of possibilities for what I can do as a professor in the classroom.”

Alice Baumgartner

Alice Baumgartner

Baumgartner’s book is expanding the horizons of academia—as well as for anyone interested in the history of Mexico and the Americas, says Professor Spencer Crew, who served as president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center museum in Ohio for six years and last year served as director for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“For me, (Baumgartner’s work) is helpful because while there have been one or two articles on the topic, there has never been a book that really looks at the escape into Mexico in full and rich detail.”

Overlooked history

Growing up in Chicago, Baumgartner admired her dad for his writing, but it was her grandfather, a World War II veteran, who “told the really good stories,” she says, inspiring her to write her first story at age 5 about a fairy named Palestine, who lived in a sack.

“I’m not exactly sure why she lived in a sack, but if I had known then I would be a historian, I would have dated it.”

Baumgartner continued to have an ear fine-tuned for interesting words and stories as she dug through 28 archives in three countries to hear the voices of enslaved people who risked their lives to set foot on soil in Mexico, where slavery was abolished in 1837.

“At book events, I am consistently asked if the road south is the same as the Underground Railroad north,” she says. The short answer is yes and no.

Numerically, it diverges: Between 30,000 and 100,000 of enslaved people looked north to “free” states and Canada, while 3,000 to 5,000 people, largely in Texas, went south due to the proximity of the border.    

But individual ingenuity and monumental risk were no less requirements for enslaved people heading south to Mexico, Baumgartner says, and their stories—such as that of Mathilde Hennes, who escaped Louisiana the summer of 1850 and secured a paid job working for the family of Manuel Luis del Fierro—have largely been overlooked.

Also overlooked is the significance of how Mexico—a country whose authorities as well as ordinary citizens (like Luis del Fierro, who fought Norteamericanos at gunpoint) notably prevented the recapture of runaways—ultimately changed the landscape of freedom by de-stabilizing slavery, Baumgartner says.

“We can’t truly understand the coming of the Civil War without looking at Mexico and the slaves who fled there to freedom,” she says.

Crew, who teaches a class on the Underground Railroad at George Mason University in Virginia, says Baumgartner’s book will be a valuable tool for his students.

“This book heightens our understanding of the richness and diversity of the Underground Railroad experience.”

The Limerick method

It was during the 2016 annual Western History Association Conference in St. Paul, Minn., when Baumgartner first heard of the Center of the American West and Limerick, its faculty director and board chair.

“I was having dinner with one of Patty’s friends, Professor David Wrobel, and asked him where I should spend my fellowship year,” she says. “We paid the bill, stepped out onto the street and guess who we literally ran into?”

At CU Boulder, Limerick and Baumgartner co-taught the spring 2018 Introduction to Western American Studies course of about 40 undergraduate students. Limerick had an experiment in mind, and Baumgartner was the ideal partner to try it, she says, because of her protégé’s fearless attitude and empathy for students.

“Even if I had sent out applications worldwide, I could not have picked a better teammate,” Limerick says.

The experiment was to engage each student, especially those who seemed disengaged or working at minimum effort. “We were going to throw them a lifeline,” Limerick says.

The plan started by grading the first paper with heroic effort, followed by a required rewrite.

“It was quite something, Alice and I divided up the class and spent hours writing comments. We would ask, ‘Are you sure you used the right word here? Why did you use a paragraph there?’” Limerick says. “There was nowhere to hide from us, and a lot of students show great enthusiasm for hiding.”

Some students earned a third round, by personal invitation only.

“In the end, almost everyone came to life for us, some in breathtaking ways,” Limerick says, adding: “and I never use the word breathtaking.”

The year was formative, Baumgartner says. “Patty believes in her students unfailingly,” Baumgartner says, noting even those who failed to come to a scheduled conference got a second chance.

As a professor at USC, and like her mentor, Baumgartner fully rejects the idea that professors are sometimes too busy for their students. She also believes humor is her best tool, including the rubber chicken she flings into the air. The student who catches it, answers the question. 

“To be certain, I had Yale professors who taught me sound pedagogical strategies,” she says, “but nothing better than Patty’s rubber chicken. It’s a great way to lighten the mood and tension that can build up in the room.”

If a student is nodding off during class, they receive a Get Well card plunked down on the desk, saying something like, “We are so sorry and hope you can come back soon,” Baumgartner says.

“I’m not as funny as Patty, and I can’t do improv like she does, but I use her strategies in my classes.”

Sophie Hammond, one of Baumgartner’s students at USC, was gleefully surprised by her professor’s innovation and humor.

“Professor Baumgartner is the kind of professor whom you can geek out with about the archival discoveries you’ve made, who’ll laugh at a pompous source with you, and who takes your ideas and your research seriously,” Hammond says.

“For her American West course, I wrote a final research paper on racial violence during the Gold Rush. … She even met with me weekly over Zoom, talking through sources I’d found and offering suggestions for framing and structuring the paper, giving me the resources I needed to be successful.”

History matters

As Baumgartner was transforming her finished dissertation into a book, she came back to Boulder in 2019 to tap into the Center of the American West’s culture and community for help, including their monthly book club.

Readers should understand the enormous investment beyond writing that went into this book, Limerick says, and what a gift it is to unearth voices that could have easily been lost to history. 

“I personally think that history is sacred,” Limerick says. “As teachers, we arrive at a time on the planet to offer our energies to bring back life to these voices, and this is what Alice has done.”

As a self-described “archive rat,” Baumgartner, who is bilingual, spent a lot of time in little known and rarely visited archives throughout Mexico, including the town of Monclova.

“That was my favorite,” she says. “It was so unusual to have a “Gringa” visiting and learning local Mexican history,” she says. Archivist Gricelda Hernandez asked if she would agree to be interviewed on local radio just for visiting.

Throughout her research, though, Baumgartner thought deeply about whether she was the right one to write this book, she says, as a white American.

What helps answer the question is reading the many emails coming in from living descendants of enslaved people who fled to Mexico, saying they are grateful to have a fuller picture of their family tree.

The core to the Underground Railroad is that it is a story of early activism that is interracial in operation."

Baumgartner’s book is a welcome addition to what is lagging in scholarship of this time period, says Crew, who is African American.

“In the end, what is important to me is to get the information out through a variety of accurate, well-researched efforts. History can come from an in-out perspective or out-in, and both are useful,” he says.

“The core to the Underground Railroad is that it is a story of early activism that is interracial in operation. What you have is a country not living up to its standards set forward in the Declaration of Independence, which casts wonderful words about liberation, democracy and freedom that only applies to a small segment of the population. And African Americans are saying, ‘We deserve freedom, too, while allies are persistent.’”

It’s a relevant and poignant example of people taking steps toward evolution and change, drawing parallels to immigration laws and modern-day slavery, Crew says.

“The past and present are connected,” he says. “It’s useful for students to see and understand that history matters.”