In January 1849, fugitive slave couple William and Ellen Craft arrived in Boston after traveling over one thousand miles from captivity in Macon, Georgia. Their harrowing escape—in which the fair- skinned Ellen disguised herself as a white gentleman and the dark-skinned William played the part of her doting slave—illustrates both the power of the Underground Railroad in Boston’s antebellum black community and the power of militant abolitionism in the face of federal pro-slavery legislation.
In his 1860 narrative, Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom, William Craft stated, “It is true, our condition as slaves was not by any means the worst; but the thought that we couldn’t call the bones and sinews that God gave us our own . . . haunted us for years.” Although both William and Ellen were enslaved in the notorious rice paddy region of Macon, Georgia, neither of them had been forced to endure the strenuous life of rice cultivation that afflicted so many of their brethren.
William was let out to a white cabinetmaker, a practice that was common in Macon during the antebellum era, and an occupation that provided William with a trade that few slaves were fortunate to get. Slaves who had learned a trade not only sold well at auction, they also had some autonomy, limited though it was, over their own work. Ellen worked as a “ladies’ slave,” a position that gave her favoritism within the white household where she worked.
Upon marriage in 1846, William and Ellen Craft began to search for a way to escape to the North. Although they had heard stories of those who had come before them—slaves who had stolen away at night or disappeared while being let out in the local marketplace—they feared being separated and sold further down south if captured. Finally, in 1848, they decided upon a plan to disguise Ellen as an infirm white man, and William, as a faithful slave, accompanying his “master” to Philadelphia for medical treatment. On December 21st, after obtaining passes from their respective masters to travel to the next town for the Christmas holiday, William and Ellen used the money that William had been saving from his apprenticeship to board a train to Savannah.
After traveling by train and steamboat along the coast through South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland, the Crafts arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas Day, 1848. After spending three weeks with a Quaker farmer and his family, the Crafts traveled to Boston, where William found work as a cabinetmaker and Ellen found work as a seamstress. They boarded at the home of Lewis Hayden, a boardinghouse that often served as a rendezvous for fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.
In September 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which not only provided for the return of fugitive slaves to their masters in the South, but also mandated the assistance of federal marshals and private citizens in the capture of fugitives. The abolitionists in Boston responded on October 4, 1850, by holding a meeting at the African Meeting House when they voted to organize a group called the “League of Freedom” to protest the capture of fugitives. The League of Freedom voted Lewis Hayden president and William Craft vice-president. Ten days later, on October 14th, the League of Freedom was absorbed into the Boston Vigilance Committee, designed “to secure the colored inhabitants of Boston from any invasion of their rights.”
On October 20, 1850, agents Hughes and Knight were sent by the Crafts’ former owners to Boston to catch the fugitives. The actions of the abolitionist community, along with the coordinated efforts of African Americans throughout the Beacon Hill neighborhood, indicate of the power of nineteenth-century black Bostonians, and their white allies, in the face of institutionalized racist policy. Vigilance committee member William I. Bowditch transported Ellen Craft to the home of abolitionist Ellis G. Loring in Brookline and then to the home of Reverend Theodore Parker. William Craft remained in the Hayden home on Phillips Street, which Lewis Hayden had turned into a veritable fortress, vowing to blow up his entire residence rather than surrender a single fugitive within his care. Members of the vigilance committee relentlessly harassed Hughes and Knight by documenting their every move in the popular Liberator magazine, verbally assaulting them as they wandered the streets, and even having them arrested for slander.
After members of the vigilance committee approached Hughes and Knight at their hotel with news that they would not be safe if they remained in Boston any longer, the slave catchers left the city. However, with the warrant for the Crafts’ arrest still in the hands of the federal marshal, the vigilance committee was well aware that the couple’s safety was not a guarantee. Reverend Samuel May, a friend of the Crafts and a member of the abolitionist struggle, both locally and nationally, sent a letter to abolitionist contacts in Bristol, England. With assurance that they would be provided for in Bristol, the Crafts traveled from Portland, Maine, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and finally to Liverpool, where they remained until after the Civil War. While working with antislavery organizations throughout England, William and Ellen Craft continued to contribute to the cause of emancipation and racial uplift that had characterized their own journey from slavery, to freedom, to activism, and, finally, to safety.
As William Craft stated at the conclusion of his 1860 narrative:
We shall always cherish the deepest feelings of gratitude to the Vigilance Committee of Boston . . . as well as our numerous friends, for the very kind and noble manner in which they assisted us to preserve our liberties, and to escape . . . like Lot from Sodom, to a place of refuge.
The Craft case was the first of its kind in Boston. It set precedent for the militant activism of black and white abolitionists of the 1850s. In the eyes of the country, Boston—due primarily to the strength and resolve of its black community—was a place where the evils of slavery and the brutality of the Fugitive Slave Law would not be tolerated.
Anthony Burns escaped from his master in Virginia. He made his way to Boston. He was able to read and write. He found a job in a clothing store on Brattle Street. On May 24, 1854, having been in Boston only about two months and on his way home from work, he was arrested as an escaped slave. Richard Henry Dana offered to defend him. Burns was at first wary of the white lawyer, but was later persuaded to reconsider. Black attorney Robert Morris assisted Dana. Reverend Leonard Grimes of the 12th Baptist Church, a member of the vigilance committee, also visited Burns.
The abolitionist community had been aroused by his capture. John Greenleaf Whittier and others, including the vigilance committee, called for nonviolent resistance. On Friday, May 26th, a group of angry blacks met at Tremont Temple and called for volunteers to free Burns. At Faneuil Hall, the vigilance committee was holding a public meeting urging resistance. The meeting was interrupted by news that an attempt was being made to storm the courthouse. Led by Higginson and Hayden, the meeting adjourned to the courthouse, where they joined the attack. Only a few feet into the entrance of the courthouse, they were met by federal marshals. By the time order was restored, thirteen people had been arrested, and one U.S. marshal was dead.
By Saturday, Boston was overflowing with troops and antislavery supporters. Anthony Burns was heavily guarded at his trial the following week, and admission to the courthouse was severely restricted. The federal court refused to rule on the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law. Judge Edward G. Loring ordered Burns turned over to the custody of his master.
On Friday, June 2nd, Burns was escorted to a ship to be returned to Virginia. Every street along the route was guarded by members of the Massachusetts Infantry, who had been ordered to fire on the crowd if anyone crossed police lines. Anthony Burns’s supporters had draped buildings along the route in black, hung flags upside down, and suspended a huge coffin labeled “Liberty”—symbolizing the death of liberty—across State Street. Richard Henry Dana described the scene in his journal:
. . . Whenever a body of troops passed to or fro, they were hissed & hooted by the people, with some attempts at applause from their favorers. Nearly all the shops in C’t [sic] & State streets were closed & hung in black, & a huge coffin was suspended across State st., [sic] and flags Union down. A brass field piece, belonging to the 4th Artillery was ostentatiously loaded in sight of all the people & carried by the men of that corps in rear of the hollow Square in which Burns was placed. Some 1500 or 1800 men of the Vol. Militia were under arms, all with their guns loaded & capped, & the officers with revolvers. These men were stationed at different posts in all the streets & lanes that lead into Court or State streets, from the C’t [sic]. Hs. to Long Wharf . . .. . . Gen. Edmands gave orders to each commander of a post to fire on the people whenever they passed the line marked by the police in a manner he should consider turbulent & disorderly. So, from 9 o’ck. in the morning until towards night, the city was really under Martial law. The entire proceeding was illegal.Mr. Grimes & I remained in the C’t [sic]. Hs. until the vile procession moved. Notwithstanding their numbers & the enormous military protection, the Marshal’s company were very much disturbed & excited. They were exceedingly apprehensive of some unknown & unforeseen violence.The “guard” at length filed out & formed a hollow square. Each man was armed with a short Roman sword & one revolver hanging in his belt. In this square marched Burns with the Marshal. The U.S. troops & the squadron of Boston light house [sic] preceded & followed the square, with the field piece. As the procession moved down it was met with a perfect howl of Shame! Shame! & hisses.
With the use of 2,000 soldiers, marines, artillery, and Coast Guardsmen, and at a cost of $40,000, Anthony Burns was returned to slavery. In addition to the great financial burden of this incident, the furor aroused among the citizens of Boston was felt throughout the nation, causing one southern editor to write, “We rejoice at the recapture of Burns, but a few more such victories and the South is undone.” His fear has been justified by history; Burns was the last runaway slave to be captured in Massachusetts. Immediately after Burns was returned to slavery, an Anti-Man Hunting League was formed in Boston, and throughout the state, for the purpose of kidnapping slave hunters. In addition, the vigilance committee, led by Wendell Phillips, circulated 1,500 petitions for the removal of Judge Edward G. Loring; in 1858, he was finally removed from office by the governor.
The abolitionists of Boston did not consider this case closed, however. Money was collected to purchase Burns from his master. On February 27, 1855, Reverend Grimes met with Burns and his owner in Baltimore and purchased Burns’a freedom. In 1856, a biography of Anthony Burns was published; some of the proceeds from the book helped to pay for his education. With those funds and a scholarship provided by a Boston woman, Burns spent two years at Oberlin College, studying to be a minister. He spent a short time in Indianapolis as pastor of a black Baptist church before moving into Canada. There, in a small settlement on the shores of Lake Ontario, Anthony Burns became pastor of the Zion Baptist Church.
1. Of the following, which best explains why the Crafts were in a position to escape?
a. Both had been very well educated.
b. The couple had money and some authority.
c. No one in the area knew them very well.
d. They had kind masters who let them visit friends.
2. Once the Crafts had escaped from Macon, where did they go?
b. Nova Scotia
3. The Fugitive Slave Law forced
a. private citizens to return runaway slaves to their masters.
b. slaves to voluntarily return to their masters on penalty of death.
c. the vigilance committees to comply with state law.
d. Massachusetts to return the Crafts to the local antislavery society.
4. When Hughes and Knight came to take the Crafts away, what did abolitionists in the area do?
a. armed themselves and fought off the agents
b. forced the Crafts to return with the agents
c. turned the agents away empty-handed
d. moved the Crafts to another town in Massachusetts
5. Why would any more cases like Anthony Burns’s have done irreparable damage to the South?
a. His case was unknown to most people in the North and the South.
b. This case had cost the South too much time and money.
c. Even in the North, public sentiment was on the side of the South.
d. The case had cost the South the lives of many soldiers.
6. Eventually, after many twists and turns, how was Anthony Burns finally freed from slavery?
a. Burns was purchased by another master who then freed him.
b. Anthony Burns escaped to Canada.
c. Burns won his freedom after he wrote his book.
d. A reverend purchased Anthony Burns’s freedom for him.
7. In some parts of the United States, the stories of the Crafts and Anthony Burns helped to arouse public sentiment against slavery. Why do you think that the travails of fugitive slaves so affected public opinion at the time? Clearly explain your response. Use the text to support your opinion.