Boston media has called it one of the most dramatic protests in the city’s history. It happened nearly 170 years ago when Anthony Burns, who had fled slavery in Virginia and settled in Boston, was arrested for being a fugitive slave and sent back to Virginia. His arrest enraged abolitionists in Boston, who led protests in the streets to get Burns freed.
But they were unsuccessful and Burns was returned to Virginia after a trial. About 50,000 people protested his return. In less than a year, Burns was back in Boston as a free man. Here’s how.
Born into slavery in Virginia on May 31, 1834, Burns was the youngest of 13 children. His family was owned by John Suttle but later when Suttle died, his widow sold five of the Burns siblings and hired out the remaining siblings, including Burns for income. Burns did several jobs including being a sawmill worker and tavern employee. But he had some privileges, according to PBS. He was allowed to hire himself out and supervise the hiring out of four other slaves owned by Suttle. He was also allowed to take on additional jobs, as long as he paid his owner a fee.
Burns learned to read and write and he joined a church, where he became a preacher. All the same, he longed for freedom. Growing up, he had learned that “there [was] a Christ who came to make us free” and felt “the necessity for freedom of soul and body.” So in March 1854, he decided to escape to freedom. While working in Richmond, Burns boarded a ship heading north, to the city of Boston.
Getting to Boston, he started working with a clothing store operated by Lewis Hayden, an abolitionist. His freedom would not last long, thanks to a letter he sent to his brother not long after he arrived in Boston. His brother was enslaved in Richmond, and the letter fell into the hands of his brother’s owner, who then handed it over to Burn’s former owner Suttle. On May 24, 1854, Burns was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act, a part of the Compromise of 1850. The act required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. The act also said that the federal government was responsible for finding, returning, and trying escaped slaves.
Boston abolitionists, who were strongly opposed to the Slave Act, decided to get Burns released from the third floor of the federal courthouse where he was being held. On May 26, 1854, thousands of Bostonians gathered at Faneuil Hall to protest Burns’ arrest. An angry mob went to Court Square shouting “Rescue him!”
Boston Globe writes: “A crowd of militant protesters — both white and Black — gathered around the courthouse where Burns was being held. Some men grabbed a ladder and began beating it against the door. Protesters swung axes, and a group men grabbed a wooden beam from a nearby construction site and used it as a battering ram, smashing it against the door until it broke open. They threw stones. Shots were fired. As the crowd tried to force its way inside the building, US Marshals beat the back the angry mob with nightsticks. A deputized marshal named James Batchelder was killed at the scene.”
Bostonians had successfully helped re-captured slaves in the past but they were not successful this time. On June 2, Burns was taken out of the building where he was being held in handcuffs and marched through an angry crowd of abolitionists to the harbor, where he was placed on the ship and returned to Virginia. About 2,000 federal soldiers were assigned to escort him to Boston harbor following a judge’s order to return Burns to slavery in Virginia.
Longroadtojustice.org reports that every street along the route to the harbor was draped in black and flags hung upside-down. A huge coffin labeled Liberty was also suspended across State Street. When Burns got back to Virginia, he was sold to another slave owner, however, he did not stay enslaved for long. The Rev. Leonard A. Grimes of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston and other abolitionists helped raise money to purchase Burns’ freedom. On February 22, 1855, Burns returned to Massachusetts as a free man. He later studied at Oberlin College in Ohio and became a minister in Canada.
In a letter to the Baptist Church in 1856, Burns wrote about the pain of being enslaved and why he had to escape. “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 a slave; and gave me the same right to myself that he have 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.”
In June 2020, the National Park Service and Boston African American National Historic Site shared video clips from a film about Burns, “A Man Kidnapped: The Rendition of Anthony Burns” on Twitter and Facebook.
“In the aftermath of the Burns case, many in the town of Boston changed their opinions on slavery in the United States,” the Facebook post said. “This case proved to be a flashpoint, forcing many people for the first time to take a stand on an issue they previously either ignored or had no knowledge of.”