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Slave Driver, Catch a Fire!

A simple piece of paper that could strike fear in your heart
Notice to all Colored People of Boston, one and all, You are hereby respectfully cautioned and advised, to avoid conversing, with the Watchmen and Police Officers of Boston, For since the recent order of the mayor and aldermen, they are empowered to act as KIDNAPPERS and SLAVECATCHERS.

Imagine seeing this sign on your way to pick up loaf of bread from the store. If you are colored (an old term for Black or African American) you must make a mad dash home and gather your family to alert them of the news. Think it could never happen. Well it did, in 1850 right here in the good ol' US of A!

Here is how it all started: tensions were building in the North and the South over issues of slavery, and what to do about the newly annexed state of Texas. California was going to be admitted to the Union as a free state and New Mexico and Utah would let popular a vote decide whether or not to allow slavery. And Washington D.C. would not involve itself in the practice of slavery anymore. Slavery supporters said "blah, blah, blah, okay what of the state of slavery in our territories?" So, in walks Congress with a shameful solution called the Fugitive Slave Act. This Act provided for the authorization of enslaved blacks that had escaped from bondage, to be returned to their "rightful owners" in the state from which they had escaped. This Act, along with all of the decisions regarding the new states was known as the Compromise of 1850.

The way to the underground railroad. All aboard!
In some cases a $1000 fine was charged to those who refused to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act (it was a national law). Capture of a slave was possible by warrant or by having another person bring them back to the original territory. The Fugitive Slave Act also made it illegal to aid anyone in the escape of an enslaved individual. The act provided that a "well trained slave" was worth $2,500. The captured individual was not granted a trial by jury or able to give evidence on their own behalf. Uh oh! This spelled trouble. Whites who wanted some extra money, had a disdain for blacks or just nothing better to do started to kidnap escaped slaves and even "free" men (or those who were not considered slaves) and turn them in for profit.

The nexus of the black community: the meeting house in Boston
It was now time for the abolitionists to step up their game. Organization was the key. Never before had the underground railroad been so important. The hub of the underground railroad had for a long time been Boston, MA. It was here amongst these winding streets that many people found freedom, something they hadn't known since their ancestors left Africa. One particular depot on the Underground Railroad was the house of Lewis Hayden.

The golden words of this plaque don't begin to say how important this house is
Hayden was formally a slave, and provided from his own escape from Kentucky. From his clothing store basement in Boston, he held abolitionist meetings and helped the refugees of war we called slaves from the clutches of the authorities. It was in this clothing store that he answered the door with a stick of dynamite in hand. Opening the door slowly, he would reveal to the police that there were to kegs of gunpowder under the stoop. If the police did not make like birds and fly away, Hayden would have himself a 4th of July celebration early!

The excitement did not end there, kids. Have you ever heard of the Jerry Rescue? Most people haven't. Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State at the time, was brewing mad that people even attempted to challenge the Fugitive Slave Law, with their underhanded responses such as the Underground Railroad. As far as abolitionists were concerned, Mr. Webster probably had cooties in the brain. He thought that everyone would just sit by and watch while he acted as if black slaves were mere pieces of property, property that had to be "reclaimed" after it was "stolen" from its masters. On October 1, 1851 in Syracuse New York, a man who called himself Jerry (his slave name was William Henry), was arrested while at work in a barrel-making facility. After being put in jail he was later freed by 2500 brave men (equal to the amount of dollars a "trained slave" was worth. Coincidence?). This became known as the Jerry Rescue, and is commemorated with a statue in Syracuse, NY.


Now I love the rain! I love it, I love it

Anthony Burns was another individual detained under the infamous Fugitive Slave Act. Enslaved in Alexandria, VA, Burns enjoyed privileges that many others in his same position did not have. He was allowed to hire himself out in for money. In exchange, he had to give his "master" part of the money he earned. He even was able to join a church, learned to read and write, and become a preacher. The next step for young Burns was to find freedom. In the blink of an eye he boarded a ship to Boston, making him a fugitive. His legal owner Charles Suttle pursued him. Suttle wanted him captured under the fugitive slave laws. Unfortunately for Anthony, he was caught and put on a ship for Virginia in chains. Ahh, but a church purchased his freedom for $1300 dollars and he was free at last, free at last


Please email me at: kevin1@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass: A blazing intellect and a heart on fire
Daphne -- All aboard the Underground Railroad
Kevin - Editor William Lloyd Garrison wages war with words