Articles from the Boston Compass, This Month in Counter-Cultural History

Boston Counter Cultural History: Boston Vigilance Union


This article originally appeared in the February 2015 Boston Compass (#61).

Shadrach Minkins was born into slavery in Norfolk, VA circa 1814. On May 3, 1850, he escaped his enslavers and fled to Boston. There he found refuge in the free black community on Beacon Hill, a job waiting tables at Taft’s Cornhill Coffee Shop, and support from the Boston Vigilance Committee, founded in 1841 to “secure to persons of color the enjoyment of their constitutional and legal rights.”

Meanwhile, the nation and its leaders polarized around the issue of slavery. Following Mexico’s surrender to US armed forces in 1848, the newly acquired southwestern territories promised to upset the balance between Free and Slave states. Fearing an opposing political majority would threaten their rights and interests, each side braced for civil war. To avert such disaster Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, a bill that made concessions to both North and South regarding slavery and the new territories. The Fugitive Slave Law was a controversial provision, which mandated that Northern authorities and citizens aid Southern slave owners in recovering their missing property.

The Boston Vigilance Committee criticized the Fugitive Slave Law as a federal imposition upon states’ rights, and for being immoral and unconstitutional. Blacks accused of fleeing slavery were not entitled to a fair trial, nor was any proof of ownership required for arrest, simply the word of the slaveholder. Furthermore, penalties for aiding fugitive slaves or for refusing to cooperate with authorities were severe, including stiff fines and prison sentences. Despite the dangers, the Vigilance Committee published articles, distributed pamphlets, and hung broadsides throughout the city criticizing the law and warning blacks and their allies to be wary of the police.

On February 15, 1851, US marshals apprehended Shadrach Minkins while at work, arresting him to the nearby courthouse to await his return to Norfolk. The Vigilance Committee was quick to the scene, surrounding and then occupying the courthouse with an angry mob, overrunning the marshals, and stealing Minkins away in the melee. Minkins hid in a Beacon Hill attic until he was safely smuggled aboard the Underground Railroad to Montreal, where he lived free for the remainder of his days as a husband, father, and barber.

President Millard Fillmore was livid over the insurrection in Boston, sending in the National Guard to cap mob violence and enforce fugitive slave captures. The President demanded that the Vigilance Committee be condemned for Minkin’s escape. Nine members were indicted, but charges were dropped against seven before trial. The remaining two defendants, black abolitionist attorneys Lewis Hayden and Robert Morris, were tried for treason. However, both men were acquitted by a Boston jury resentful of the military occupation and unsympathetic both to Southern slaveholders and the federal effort to preserve a Union at the expense of the principle of Liberty.

—Neil Horsky //

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