Although the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 sought to undermine the efforts of the northern anti-slavery movement and give power to southern slave masters, there were brave men and women who fearlessly challenged and protected those who broke free from their oppressors. One such group that exhibited great courage was the Boston Vigilance Committee, an anti-slavery group led by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.
The group made history on this day for famously storming United States marshals and freeing Virginia fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins by force.
The Boston Vigilance Committee made a series of contributions, including offering finances for court fees to transport captives away from bounty hunters looking to return slaves to their southern captors. Parker was also part of the “Secret Six” – six individuals of wealth and influence who bonded together as abolitionists and supported the armed slavery revolt plans of John Brown.
Minkins was arrested while working as a waiter in Boston after the amended Fugitive Slave Law allowed escaped slaves to be captured in free states such as Massachusetts.
Although Parker was the spiritual leader of the Committee, the true hero in the Minkis case is a former slave named Lewis Hayden. A member of the non-violent American Anti-Slavery Society, with Frederick Douglas serving as a key leader, Hayden broke away from the group and embraced the use of armed resistance and liberation for his people.
Along with other Committee members, they overtook the authorities guarding Minkins by forceful means. Hayden performed the same actions for escapees Thomas Sims, Anthony Burns and William and Ellen Craft. Hayden was arrested and tried for his involvement in Minkis’ escape, but the case ended in a hung jury.
After the rescue, Minkins would find safe passage to Canada due to the group’s efforts, and he eventually made his home in Montreal.
Returning to his waiter work and opening restaurants of his own, Minkins would take up the trade of barbering and lived the life of a free man along with other African-Americans who escaped.
The actions sparked President Millard Fillmore to send troops to enforce the Slave Fugitive Law. The Committee continued to fight on behalf of Black men and women looking for advancement in a country that saw them as nothing more than cattle.
Although the Committee’s actions possibly reached a zenith with the Minkins rescue, their bold defiance not only gained a man freedom but also gave a glimmer of hope that African-Americans could combat slavery’s ugly reign by force or otherwise.