One of the most dramatic protests in Boston’s history, according to local media. Anthony Burns, who had fled slavery in Virginia and resettled in Boston, was apprehended for being a fugitive slave and deported back to Virginia approximately 170 years ago. Burns’ arrest infuriated abolitionists in Boston, who staged street protests to demand his release.
They were unsuccessful, and after a trial, Burns was sent to Virginia. Approximately 50,000 people demonstrated against his return. Burns was back in Boston as a free man in less than a year. Here’s how to do it.
Burns was the youngest of 13 children born into slavery in Virginia on May 31, 1834. John Suttle owned his family, but after Suttle died, his widow sold five of the Burns siblings and farmed out the other siblings for cash, including Burns. Burns worked as a sawmill worker and a bar employee, among other things. According to PBS, he did have some advantages. He was given permission to hire himself out as well as manage the hiring out of four other Suttle slaves. He was also allowed to take on extra work as long as he paid a fee to his boss.
After joining a church, Burns learned to read and write and became a preacher. Regardless, he yearned for independence. He had heard as a child that “there [was] a Christ who came to set us free” and felt “the demand for the soul and bodily independence.” As a result, he chose to flee to freedom in March 1854. Burns boarded a ship headed north, to Boston, while working in Richmond.
When he arrived in Boston, he went to work for Lewis Hayden, an abolitionist who owned a clothes store. Thanks to a letter he sent to his brother shortly after arriving in Boston, his independence would not last long. His brother was enslaved in Richmond, and the letter was intercepted by his brother’s owner, who forwarded it to Burn’s previous master Suttle. Burns was captured on May 24, 1854, under the Fugitive Slave Act, which was part of the 1850 Compromise. Even if slaves were in a free state, the statute demanded that they be returned to their masters. The statute also stated that the federal government was in charge of tracking down, returning, and prosecuting fugitive slaves.
Burns was being imprisoned on the third floor of the federal courthouse in Boston when abolitionists in Boston, who were passionately opposed to the Slave Act, decided to have him released. Thousands of Bostonians assembled at Faneuil Hall on May 26, 1854, to protest Burns’ arrest. “Rescue him!” yelled an enraged crowd in Court Square.
“A swarm of fierce demonstrators — both white and black — gathered near the courthouse where Burns was being held,” the Boston Globe reports. A ladder was grabbed and beaten against the door by a group of men. A group of men took a wooden beam from a nearby construction site and used it as a battering ram, banging it against the door until it broke open. They threw stones. There were gunshots fired. The enraged crowd was beaten back by US Marshals with nightsticks as they sought to force their way inside the building. James Batchelder, a deputized marshal, was killed on the spot.”
In the past, Bostonians had been successful in assisting re-captured slaves, but not this time. On June 2, Burns was handcuffed and marched through an irate crowd of abolitionists to the harbor, where he was loaded onto a ship and sent to Virginia. Following a judge’s decision to return Burns to slavery in Virginia, 2,000 federal soldiers were dispatched to accompany him to Boston harbor.
According to LongroadtoJustice.org, every roadway leading to the waterfront was shrouded in black, and flags were hung upside-down. A massive coffin with the word Liberty emblazoned on it was also suspended across State Street. Burns was sold to another slave owner when he returned to Virginia, although he did not stay enslaved for long. Burns’ release was purchased with the help of the Rev. Leonard A. Grimes of Boston’s Twelfth Baptist Church and other abolitionists. Burns became a free man on February 22, 1855, and returned to Massachusetts. Later, he attended Oberlin College in Ohio and went on to become a minister in Canada.
Burns addressed a letter to the Baptist Church in 1856 about the agony of slavery and why he had to go. “Look at my case, I was stolen and made a slave as soon as I was born. No man had any right to steal me. That manstealer who stole me trampled on my dearest rights. He committed an outrage on the law of God; therefore, his manstealing gave him no right in me and laid me under no obligation to be his slave. God made me a man — not an enslaved person, and gave me the same right to myself that he has the man who stole me to himself. The great wrongs he has done me, in stealing me and making me a slave, in compelling me to work for him many years without wages, and in holding me as merchandize, — these wrongs could never put me under obligation to stay with him or to return voluntarily when once escaped.”
The National Park Service and the Boston African American National Historic Site published video segments from “A Man Kidnapped: The Rendition of Anthony Burns,” a film about Burns, on Twitter and Facebook in June 2020.
“Many in the community of Boston changed their ideas about slavery in the United States as a result of the Burns case,” the Facebook post added. “This case became a flashpoint, compelling many people to take a stand for the first time on an issue they had previously either disregarded or were unaware of.”