Fighting for Freedom

 

By the mid-19th century, new federal laws and Supreme Court decisions tightened slavery’s grip on the nation. Across the United States, the future of slavery was hotly debated, and soon the nation was embroiled in the Civil War.

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In Boston, William Cooper Nell (1816-1874) and other abolitionists revived Crispus Attucks’s legacy in their fight to end slavery. They presented Attucks as the first martyr of the Revolution who died fighting for liberty. The image resonated powerfully in a nation that placed millions of African Americans in bondage despite its stated ideal of freedom.

William C. Nell
William C. Nell
WILLIAM C. NELL
Artist Unknown

Undated
Photograph
Reproduction courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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William Cooper Nell (1816-1874) worked to desegregate public schools in Boston. He also ran for office and helped build Boston’s network of antislavery activists. He led efforts to free Anthony Burns and worked with black and white abolitionists to purchase Burns’s freedom after he was returned to slavery.

 

State Street Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770
State Street Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770
STATE STREET BOSTON MASSACRE, MARCH 5, 1770

W.L. Champney (1834-1880), artist

1856
Hand colored lithograph
Reproduction from the Collection of Revolutionary Spaces
Gift of Joseph R. Ross
1890.0042

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A scene similar to Paul Revere’s The Bloody Massacre unfolds in this 1856 lithograph based on the illustration by W.L. Champney. Crispus Attucks appears as a central figure in the event, symbolizing African Americans’ sacrifices and contributions to the United States. With club in hand, Attucks seizes a soldier’s bayonet before his death.

Arrest of Anthony Burns

Violent conflicts erupted in 1850 when the federal government passed a new Fugitive Slave Act that allowed slaveholders to capture and return to slavery any individual who had fled north to escape bondage. In Boston, Anthony Burns (1834-1862) escaped enslavement in Virginia only to be arrested, tried, and returned to Southern slavery. Black Bostonians were among the first to storm the courthouse where he was held. In a few years, the protesters who joined the mob to free Burns were likened to modern-day Attuckses. Confrontations like these marked a new era of bold resistance to slavery in Massachusetts and around the nation.

Read and Ponder the Fugitive Slave Law
Read and Ponder the Fugitive Slave Law
READ AND PONDER THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW
Unknown maker

1850
Ink on paper
Reproduction courtesy of Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History,
GLC01862

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The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act allowed Southern slaveholders to use federal courts and local police to return escaped slaves to the South. In practice, the law made all black people vulnerable to kidnapping whether or not they were previously enslaved. The law was a shock to states like Massachusetts which had personal liberty laws that prevented courts and local police from kidnapping alleged fugitives. Some black Bostonians fled for Canada, while churches and vigilance committees defended fugitives against slave catchers and police officers who supported the law.

 

The Runaway Slaves, Anthony Burns and Thomas Sims, Returned to Slavery - Their March Through the Streets of Boston.
The Runaway Slaves, Anthony Burns and Thomas Sims, Returned to Slavery – Their March Through the Streets of Boston.
THE RUNAWAY SLAVES, ANTHONY BURNS AND THOMAS SIMS, RETURNED TO SLAVER – THEIR MARCH THROUGH THE STREETS OF BOSTON
Artist Unknown

1899
Published in Story of my life: or, the Sunshine and Shadow of 70 Years by Mary A. Livermore
Reproduction courtesy of the New York Public Library

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Handcuffs worn by Anthony Burns
Handcuffs worn by Anthony Burns
HANDCUFFS WORN BY ANTHONY BURNS
The Froggatt Company

c. 1850
Collection of Revolutionary Spaces

Gift of Mrs. Jerome W. Doten
1923.0007

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These iron handcuffs were worn by Anthony Burns as he was led down Court Street in 1854 to the ship that would return him to slavery. They are a typical form of mid-19th-century handcuffs, with a circle on either end connected by a three-link chain. Both the handcuffs and the key were manufactured by Froggatt and stamped with the number 25.

Colored Patriots of the American Revolution

William Cooper Nell (1816-1874) was an abolitionist who challenged ideas about black racial inferiority by writing about and celebrating black achievement. His work was a response to those who defended slavery by arguing that blacks were incapable of citizenship. In his 1855 book Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, Nell made the case for African American equality by describing their contributions to the national struggle for freedom. A powerful passage in the book describes Anthony Burns walking through Boston to his re-enslavement in Virginia on a route that passes the spot where Attucks died for liberty.

Nell’s book influenced abolitionists, including Lewis Hayden (1811-1889) and Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). When the Civil War began, Hayden and Douglass wanted black men to serve in the Union Army despite restrictions on their enlistment. They referenced Nell’s history, including his comments on Attucks, as they rallied the black community around the Union cause. By the time Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, African Americans across the country, inspired in part by these references to Attucks, enlisted in Massachusetts’ famed 54th Regiment. Nell watched the black troops depart for South Carolina from the site of Attucks’s fall in the Boston Massacre.

The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans
The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution

THE COLORED PATRIOTS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, WITH SKETCHES OF SEVERAL DISTINGUISHED COLORED PERSONS: TO WHICH IS ADDED A BRIEF SURVEY OF THE CONDITION AND PROSPECTS OF COLORED AMERICANS
William Cooper Nell (1816-1874)
Boston, R.F. Wallcut, publisher

1855
Reproductions courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum

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The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans
The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution

A Tradition Revived

In 1858, Boston’s abolitionists protested the Dred Scott decision during a public oration at Faneuil Hall that referenced the Boston Massacre and Attucks’s death. During the oration, William Cooper Nell once again called Attucks the first martyr of the American Revolution and linked Attucks to the black abolitionists who participated in the Anthony Burns rescue.

Portrait of Dred Scott
Portrait of Dred Scott
PORTRAIT OF DRED SCOTT
Artist Unknown

c. 1857
Photograph
Reproduction courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Dred Scott (c. 1799-1858), originally enslaved in Virginia, sued for his freedom after he traveled to free states and the Illinois territory. In 1857, Scott’s suit landed in the Supreme Court, which ruled that black people were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The Dred Scott decision effectively denied citizenship to all people of African descent in the United States.

 

Quote from Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Quote from Thomas Wentworth Higginson – Click for full text and larger image.

 

Faneuil Hall Commemorative Festival Brochure, March 5, 1858
Faneuil Hall Commemorative Festival Brochure, March 5, 1858
FANEUIL HALL COMMEMORATIVE FESTIVAL BROCHURE
William Cooper Nell (1816-1874)

1858
Reproduction

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