The story of Anthony Burns involves two of my favorite themes in history: riots and those standing up to injustice. It also parallels what is happening in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Both events pushed the public in the direction of advancing equality for blacks.
In 1854 Anthony Burns was a nineteen-year-old slave in Virginia. In March of that year, he escaped and stowed away on a ship in a compartment that could barely hold his body. He made it from Richmond to Boston by the end of the month. At the time, Boston was not only a literary and political Athens, it was a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment. The fiery preacher William Lloyd Garrison ran his newspaper, The Liberator. Abolitionists—both white and black—met often at the African Meeting House.
It’s likely Burns could have escaped for good except for one thing. He sent a letter to his enslaved brother in Virginia, in which he disclosed his whereabouts. The letter was intercepted and given to Burns’ master, Charles Stuttle. Stuttle then went to retrieve his "property." He did this according to a law Congress passed in 1850 called the Fugitive Slave Act.
Among its many points, the Fugitive Slave Act denied an escaped slave the right to a trial by jury. Also, more federal government officials received the task to hunt down slaves. It was permissible to capture even those blacks who were free. After all, these freemen and women had no legal recourse to contest a slave owner's declaration that someone was his slave.
Stuttle came up from Virginia to retrieve his slave in May 1854. Burns tells the story of his arrest in an 1855 article from the New York Tribune:
When I was going home one night I heard someone running behind me; presently a hand was put on my shoulder, and somebody said: 'Stop, stop; you are the fellow who broke into a silversmith's shop the other night.' I assured the man that it was a mistake, but almost before I could speak, I was lifted from off my feet by six or seven others, and it was no use to resist. In the Court House I waited some time, and as the silversmith did not come, I told them I wanted to go home for supper. A man then come to the door; he didn't open it like an honest man would, but kind of slowly opened it, and looked in. He said, 'How do you do, Mr. Burns?' and I called him as we do in Virginia, 'master!'
The response to Burns’ arrest was fierce. A meeting of free blacks and some whites met at Tremont Temple. Another meeting of abolitionists numbering around 5,000 met at Faneuil Hall. The meeting at Faneuil Hall concluded. The audience agreed they would go to the courthouse (which included the jail where Burns was being held) the next morning to free Burns by force. But, as they concluded, someone entered the Hall informing the crowd that many from Tremont Temple had gone to do that very thing right then!
The two crowds converged on the courthouse, and although some had departed, the mob still numbered about 2,000. The doors to the courthouse locked, and the U.S. Marshal, Watson Freeman (I know, I see the irony, too), stood ready. Approximately 50 deputies were inside waiting for trouble. The Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson and some black and white protestors breached the door with a battering ram. They swarmed inside. After fierce fighting with swords, knives, fists, and guns one deputy was dead (who killed him was never discovered) and others injured. Arrests were made of thirteen protestors. The crowd, thwarted, withdrew. Burns was still held in the courthouse, awaiting his return to Virginia. A company of US Marines came to keep order that night.
There were court hearings for the next week. Burns refused to put up a fight and declared that Stuttle was his owner. That was the only thing necessary for Burns to go back to his slave owner, according to the Fugitive Slave Act. Burns' attorneys argued that the law was unconstitutional, but the judge declined to declare it as such. Anthony Burns was going back into what one protest flyer called “the Hell of Virginia slavery.”
Burns marched in shackles and chains down State Street to Long Wharf. Along the way, 50,000 Bostonians lined the streets. They booed, hissed, and screamed at the soldiers who took Burns away. American flags flew upside down and black funeral bunting draped along the windows. In total, almost 2,000 Marines, militia, and police officers accompanied Burns on his walk to a ship that carried him back to slavery.
Burns wasn’t in Virginia for long, though. There was an agreement reached before he even left Boston. A black pastor and abolitionist, Leonard Grimes, would pay for Burns’ freedom from his owner. Thanks to $1,300 in contributions from black parishioners, by the end of 1854 Burns was back in Boston. He would go on to get a degree from Oberlin College and become a pastor in Indianapolis, and Canada, where he passed on in 1862.
The death of George Floyd sparked a big change in how people all over the world view issues surrounding race and the government. In the case of Anthony Burns, it was similar. Reports of his arrest and return to the South enraged Northerners, both white and black. As Boston businessman Amos Lawrence wrote, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.” The people of Massachusetts saw to it that Anthony Burns would be the last slave ever taken from Massachusetts by the Fugitive Slave Act.
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