Boston’s tumultuous Abolitionist History – The Conscience of America
Boston’s African American community reached 2,500, free and self-emancipated slaves by 1860. Most of the community lived on the north slope of Beacon Hill and were tied into the Underground Railroad. Holmes Alleyway, just past the Museum of African American History on Smith Lane, remains today as a testament to the determination of this community to defy Federal law. Active in the Railroad were William Cooper Nells, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Coburn, Reverend Leonard Grimes, John Sweat Rock, David Walker, Lewis and Harriet Hayden, Robert Morris and John J Smith.
Boston’s Brahmin(1) abolitionist community may have totaled twenty devoted citizens all inclined to challenge the U.S. Constitution on the subject of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, Louisa May Alcott, Governor John Andrews, Julia Ward and Samuel Gridley Howe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, Lucy Stone, Angelina Grimke, George and Susan Hillard, Henry Dana, Theodore Parker, Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, George Stearns, and of special note Harriet Beecher Stowe. Most of them were financially stable if not wealthy, and many at one time, resided on Beacon Hill. Some were advocates of American Transcendentalism with Henry David Thoreau their most published representative.
Many of the people mentioned above worked together on the “Boston Vigilance Committee." Prior to the strengthened Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, this committee actively harassed all slave hunters in Boston. The Committee often boycotted or threatened violence to anyone cooperating with the slave hunters including any person or business providing them food or shelter. Boston became a difficult place for a slave hunter to make a living.
Together, both groups moved consistently closer to civil if not violent disobedience of the Fugitive Slave Law, embedded in the Compromise of 1850. Daniel Webster, Senator from Massachusetts, was maligned for his role in bringing the Compromise to conclusion. Webster was voted out of office and died of cirrhosis of the liver a year before Anthony Burns was arrested in 1854, under Webster’s compromise law. Others would suggest his death came from a broken heart. Webster wanted nothing more than to save the Union. Unfortunately the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Law in the Compromise of 1850, was beyond his constituent’s tolerance.
On May 24, 1854, the third and final attempt by slave hunters brought the Fugitive Slave Law to a climax in Boston. Anthony Burns, was captured in Boston by slave hunters hired by his former owner in Virginia. Upon arrest Burns was transferred by Federal Marshals to the State court house on State Street. Both black and white abolitionist attempted to batter down the court-house doors but failed. A trial ensued and Burns lost his freedom. On the day he was to be shipped to Virginia a crowd estimated to reach 50,000, people gathered around the court house demanding Burns release. Of the two prior Boston arrests under the Fugitive Slave Act, Shadrack Minkins was forcibly removed from the court house by many of the African Americans mentioned above, and quickly moved along the Underground Railroad to Concord and Canada. Thomas Symms was not so lucky. Federal Marshals became aware of a plot to have Symms jump into a waiting wagon filled with mattresses. The Marshalls barred Symms window on the second floor. Next came Burns. The Federal Government sent 200 marines, 1,800 soldiers, mercenaries and one cannon, to march Burns down State Street to a ship that returned him to his former master in Virginia. Every home and building in Boston covered their windows with black crepe and flew the American Flag upside down.
Nine months later, Reverend Leonard Grimes, traveled to Virginia and purchased Burns freedom. Supporters published a book on the affair and used the proceeds to support Burns for two years at Oberlin College. He served as a pastor in Indiana then moved to Canada. Unfortunately, slavery left him in poor health and he died at the age of twenty-eight, in Canada, on July 17, 1862.
(1) A term attributed to the Associate Justice of the Unite States Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to designate the educated, if not elitist class of society.