Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Capture of Fugitive Slave, Anthony Burns

From the PBS series Africans in America, "Anthony Burns captured: 1854" -- As a slave owned by Charles Suttle of Alexandria, Virginia, Anthony Burns had many privileges. He was allowed to hire himself out. He supervised the hiring out of four other slaves owned by Suttle. He had the freedom to take on additional jobs, as long as he paid his master a fee. He joined a church, where he became a preacher. He learned to read and write. Still, Anthony Burns was not content. At an early age he had learned that "there [was] a Christ who came to make us free" and felt "the necessity for freedom of soul and body." In 1854, he took steps to find freedom. While working in Richmond, Burns boarded a ship heading north, to the city of Boston.

Burns arrived in Boston in March -- a fugitive, but free. This new-found freedom, however, would be short-lived. Soon after his arrival he sent a letter to his brother, who was also a slave of Charles Suttle. Even though the letter was sent by way of Canada, it found its way into the hands of their master.

A few years earlier, Suttle could have expected little help from a northern state in recovering a fugitive slave. Nine states had personal liberty laws declaring that they would not cooperate with the federal government in the recapturing of slaves. But with the recent passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, a component of the Compromise of 1850, the law was on Suttle's side.

Suttle travelled to Boston to claim his "property," and on May 24, under the pretext of being charged for robbery, Burns was arrested. Boston abolitionists, vehemently opposed to the Slave Act, rallied to aid Burns, who was being held on the third floor of the federal courthouse. Two separate groups met at the same time to discuss Burn's recapture: a large group, consisting mainly of white abolitionists, met at Fanueil Hall; a smaller group, mostly blacks, met in the basement of the Tremont Temple.

The meeting at the Tremont Temple was quickly over. Those present decided to march to the courthouse and release Burns, using force if necessary. The meeting at Fanueil Hall lasted much longer. The group there debated the course of action. When the intentions of the Tremont Temple gathering were announced, however, the meeting abruptly ended. About two hundred citizens left Fanueil Hall and headed to the courthouse.

The crowd outside the courthouse quickly grew from several hundred to about two thousand. A small group of blacks, led by white minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, charged the building with a beam they used as a battering ram. They succeeded in creating a small opening, but only for a moment. A shot was fired. A deputy shouted out that he had been stabbed, then died several minutes later. Higginson and a black man gained entry, but were beaten back outside by six to eight deputies.

Boston inhabitants had successfully aided re-captured slaves in the past. In 1851, a group of black men snatched a fugitive slave from a courtroom and sent her to Canada. Anthony Burns would not share the same fate. Determined to see the Fugitive Slave Act enforced, President Franklin Pierce ordered marines and artillery to assist the guards watching over Burns. Pierce also ordered a federal ship to return Burns to Virginia after the trial.

Burns was convicted of being a fugitive slave on June 2, 1854. That same day, an estimated 50,000 lined the streets of Boston, watching Anthony Burns walk in shackles toward the waterfront and the waiting ship.

A black church soon raised $1300 to purchase Burns' freedom. In less than a year Anthony Burns was back in Boston.  (source:  the PBS series Africans in America)

Watch Failed Protests on PBS. See more from American Experience.

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