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On This Day: Black Abolitionists Rescue Escaped Slave from Courthouse

It was 168 years ago when a group of abolitionists stormed a Boston courthouse to rescue a runaway slave.

On This Day: Black Abolitionists Rescue Escaped Slave from Courthouse
(Credit: Boston African American National Historic Site Twitter)

On Feb. 15, 1851, a group of Black abolitionists broke into a Boston courthouse to rescue Shadrach Minkins, an African-American fugitive slave who escaped in 1850.

Minkins was born in Norfolk, Virginia, around 1814. After living as a slave for more than 30 years, he fled to Boston. According to Blackpast.org, the city was a place of refuge for runaway slaves because it was where many abolitionists both Black and White–lived.

When Minkins arrived, there were approximately 2,500 African-Americans living in Boston. It was a haven where the escaped slaves could live in the open without fear of being recaptured. He worked odd jobs before becoming a waiter at Taft’s Cornhill Coffee House.


w:Shadrach Minkins for sale in 1849 newspaper notice (Credit: Masshist.org)

The climate changed on Sept. 15, 1850, when Congress passed the revised Fugitive Slave Act,  under which federal agents were paid to seize escaped slaves in free states and return them to their owners. The new law also denied slaves the right to a jury trial and compelled citizens to help in their capture by imposing a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.

On the day of his arrest, Minkins was picked up by two U.S. marshals  who posed as customers at the coffee shop. He did not resist arrest and was walked through the town square to the courthouse. Several lawyers offered to help the escaped slave, but his seizure was legal and themost they could do was ask for the hearing to be prolonged.

A large crowd of people gathered outside the courthouse to protest Minkins’ capture. Before long, about 20 Black men of the anti-slavery Boston Vigilance Committee. including Black abolitionist Lewis Hayden, burst into the courtroom where the Virginia native was being held and carried him out.

According to the scholar Gary Collison, “The rescuers headed north along Court Street, 200 or more following like the tail of a comet.”

Hayden housed Minkins and helped him find his way to the Underground Railroad, which he used to travel to Canada with a group of other African-Americans. They settled in Montreal and are credited with creating the first Black community in that city.

In a letter dated Feb. 28, 1851, Minkins sent thanks to those who helped him. According to Encyclopedia Virginia, the letter was printed in the Boston Commonwealth and then in the North Star, a newspaper founded by Frederick Douglass.

Minkins died in 1875 a free man.

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