Highlights from the Gates Collection of African American History and Culture
Trial of Anthony Burns
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 imposed participation in slavery upon many Northern states by requiring all states to cooperate with Southern laws mandating the return of escaped slaves to their legal "owners." Special courts tried fugitive slaves and judges were often paid for convictions. This law inflamed a reticent North by making slavery into an issue that was impossible to ignore.
Anthony Burns was born into slavery in 1835 in Virginia. At the age of 19, he escaped north to Boston, finding work at a clothing dealer. He was arrested while walking down the street a year later, in 1854, under the Fugitive Slave Act. The day before he was tried in Boston, a crowd of abolitionists, both black and white, rioted, storming the courthouse in an attempt to free Burns and killing a deputy U.S. marshal in the process. The federal government sent U.S. troops to maintain the peace and ensure that the trial took place. Troops lined the streets to keep back the crowds as Burns was led from the courthouse to the ship that returned him to his "owner" in the South. For many, the Burns arrest and trial galvanized anti-slavery sentiments.