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On this date in 1854, fugitive Black slave Anthony Burns was returned to the South from Boston.
Born a slave in Virginia, Burns was 20 when he escaped to Boston. There, for a few short months, he lived and worked as a free man. But he was arrested and held without bail at the instigation of his former white owner, Charles Suttle, who came north to bring back his slave. Suttle invoked the Fugitive Slave Act, a highly controversial federal law that allowed owners to reclaim escaped slaves by presenting proof of ownership. Suttle had every intention of taking his slave home.
But Burns had powerful allies: thousands of abolitionists who saw him as a symbol of freedom imperiled; the Boston Vigilance Committee, a group of legal professionals sworn to use any means within their power to defend the rights of fugitive slaves; and Richard Dana, the patrician lawyer and author of “Two Years Before the Mast,” who stepped forward to defend Anthony without charge. It cost the federal government $100,000 to return him.
Convicted of being a fugitive slave on this date in 1854, an estimated 50,000 citizens lined the streets of Boston, watching 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.
The African American Atlas
Black History & Culture an Illustrated Reference
by Molefi K. Asanta and Mark T. Mattson
Macmillan USA, Simon & Schuster, New York